Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Shakespeare Festival: Merry Wives of Windsor

Nine years ago, the CEO of a local bank had the idea that St. Louisans should be able to watch Shakespeare for free in a park and the Shakespeare Festival of St. Louis was born.

I've only been twice. I went two years ago when they produced Much Ado About Nothing as a western. I tried to go last year to see Richard III but we were rained out. Despite the buckets of rain that fell last week, I managed to see this year's production of The Merry Wives of Windsor. I'm not sure why I didn't go to the festival in the early years. I think it was because I also have season opera tickets in May/June and that's a lot of culture to fit into a short period.

I like Shakespeare and it seems as if I see at least one production of a Shakespeare play somewhere every year. But I never know what to say about his plays. After all, everything that could be said has been said. This year's production was a new experience for me; I had never seen Merry Wives before (although I had seen the Verdi opera that is based on it).

I remembered Falstaff from the Henry cycle (which I've seen in various places over the years) and so I was also familiar with Bardolph, Pistol and Mistress Quickly. I didn't realize that this play was a departure from the Henry plays not only in tenor but in time.

And this particular production was even more outside of time because they "updated" the story by placing it in the 1920's. The characters were dressed in 1920's middle class style similar to what you'd see in old movies. At first I wasn't sure if this idea was going to work but I eventually changed my mind. Putting Falstaff in the laundry basket is the kind of slapstick that old silent films would have loved.

I thought Daniel Talbot as Master Ford was particularly good - switching easily between Ford's jealous rage and Ford's disguise as the hilariously funny Master Brook. Most of the rest of the cast was also good. The set was clever with many doors and windows for characters to open and shut. Here's a photo from my iphone:

The productions take place in what is now known as Shakespeare Glen in Forest Park. This is a gently sloping hill located between the Art Museum and the Zoo. I'm not sure why they chose this location for doing a Shakespeare Festival. There is a 10,000 seat outdoor ampitheater in the park less than a mile away. But I suppose they wanted people to be able to sit on the grass or in their lawn chairs rather than in stadium seats on concrete. And the total audience for the whole festival is only 50,000. And they wanted it to be free.

Some much needed improvements were made to Shakespeare Glen over the winter. Drainage was added so there is no longer a bog when it rains. The plans also call for planting a grove of trees to form (eventually) a natural sound barrier. This is a good idea. The beginning of our performance was marred by the sounds of 70's disco music coming from the World's Fair Pavilion a couple of hills over, where a party was evidently going on.

But it was a beautiful night. Next year's production will be Hamlet. I can't wait to see Queen Gertrude.