Two productions of Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor are playing outdoors in SoCal parklike settings during the cool evenings of this otherwise toasty summer. Both presenters, Independent Shakespeare Company and Theatricum Botanicum, are midsize Actors' Equity companies, paying their actors union salaries and contributing to their health benefits. This means, compared to the salary-free zones occupied by the smaller professional theaters that comprise 75 percent of plays done here, both troupes are feeling financial heat along with the summer heat.
This would explain how the choice by both companies to present Merry Wives is not entirely coincidental: The crowd-pleasing English Renaissance comedy mocks and celebrates the middle class while recycling themes already familiar in Shakespeare's canon, borrowing from broad-strokes Italian commedia and French farce, and anticipating American screwball comedies of the 20th century.
You'll find in the play so many tricks being played on codgers and letches, and only a few characters who actually know what's going on, which continues to amuse because it remains true on so many planes. From the News Corp. tabloid News of the World's phone-hacking scandal in Britain, to the mismanagement of our own many deficit crises, to the eternal machinations of love and courtship, how many wrongly presume to know what's actually going on? Such comedy is timeless.
A vain, fat slob and errant knight named Falstaff tries to seduce (for their money, of course) two wives of Windsor, Mrs. Page and Mrs. Ford, by sending them handwritten love letters that are identical except for the recipient's name, as though he'd spat them out on a laserjet printer. This blustering strategy soon unravels, as the women are neighbors and friends, and mutually discover the insult. So they plant a ruse, pretending to be interested in Falstaff, which plays into the jealousy of Mr. Ford, who goes in disguise to suss out the true motives of his wife. If this were a tragedy, it would echo Othello, which emerged about seven years after Merry Wives.
Meanwhile, a trio of male suitors competes for the attention of a local young beauty, Mr. and Mrs. Page's daughter, Anne. The first suitor is a French doctor named Caius — among the earliest parodies of French haughtiness, and a basis of the black-clad, beret-doffed, womanizing, ethically bankrupt artiste — who speaks directly through his nasal cavities in a kind of incomprehensible French accent that's actually written into the play's original folio. The second, a wilting Romeo named Slender, depends on his uncle to plead his case. The third, young Master Fenton, with no financial resources, is the only suitor with a love reciprocated by Anne Page — much to her parents' consternation. At ISC, Anne's father (Richard Azurdia) clutches his heart when poor Fenton (Erwin Tuazon) appears.
When Fenton confesses to his beloved that he was first attracted to the revenues in her father's bank account, he swiftly explains how the qualities of her character soon overwhelmed such tawdry impulses. Fenton's speech about her native goodness echoes Burgundy's in King Lear, about the king's disinherited daughter, Cordelia, whom Burgundy vows to wed regardless of her forfeited dowry. But there's a difference: Burgundy marries an impoverished bride; Fenton, for all his lofty words, woos the daughter of a wealthier family. Whether Fenton's words are true, that her wealth no longer matters to him, depends on whether you hear them as a romantic or a skeptic.
Finally, the third trick played on Falstaff by the two wives involves the entire town impersonating fairies in the woods, recycling A Midsummer Night's Dream, penned about 10 years prior. Falstaff, like Midsummer's Bottom, makes reference to feeling like an ass.
Historical accounts suggest Queen Elizabeth I so enjoyed the character of Falstaff in Henry IV, Part 1, that she asked Shakespeare to write the buffoon into another play about “ordinary people” rather than kings and queens. Thus he and retinue reappear in Merry Wives, a play believed to have been dashed out in about two weeks, in the interim between the presentation of Henry IV, Part 1 and the writing of Part 2.
This would explain the play's slapdash plotting and somewhat derivative, sprawling structure. Both productions play on those qualities, though Melissa Chalsma's early-20th-century staging for ISC (a free production in Griffith Park) has a more freewheeling, improvisatory glee than Ellen Geer's comparatively buttoned-down Renaissance costume parade (by Sara Gray) in Topanga Canyon.
The many virtues of Geer's production for Theatricum Botanicum include Alan Blumenfeld's booming, Borscht Belt Falstaff, Paul Turbiak's slender, pompous Caius, and a growing crescendo of lunacy in Ted Barton's jealous Master Ford. The wives (Elizabeth Tobias and Karen Reed) play their antics as squeaky-voiced puppets in a dollhouse. In one scene, Tobias, in hoop skirt, appears to float across the stage as though she were on rollers. And in such moments, the possibilities of a more physically oriented production emerge.
Those very possibilities are what define the ISC production, perhaps because its Griffith Park performance space is comparatively open, dauntingly so, compared to the confines of Theatricum Botanicum, nestled in canyon walls. The result at Botanicum is a containment that matches the topography, shown in Melora Marshall's perfectly lovely Mistress Quickly, contrasted against the comparatively ribald interpretation by Claudia Vazquez for ISC.
Catlin Lainoff's set for ISC has lines of laundry along both sides of the platform stage, extending out into the audience — foreshadowing the farce when Falstaff (Danny Campbell) is hauled offstage buried in a laundry cart. The night breezes catch that laundry, and offer the challenge for the company of being heard over trains announcing their passage behind the L.A. River and the voices of revelers in nearby canyons. Still, the company bellows out the text unmiked, lucid at the farthest oak.
But the most telling distinction between the two versions comes from director Chalsma's attention to the glorious puffery of physical comedy for ISC — the way Falstaff pisses into an upstage bucket before its contents are chucked into the audience. The way Mr. Ford (David Melville), in disguise as an aristocrat, switches out his R's for W's in an accent reserved for the uppermost tier of the upper classes. In the invented scene where Dr. Caius (Lorenzo Gonzales, in a stridently comedic performance), naked in a bathtub, is rubbed by his voluptuous housekeeper, Mistress Quickly, and his perfectly choreographed paroxysms of ecstasy. The way Quickly cavalierly unpeels a banana and starts to relish it. Low comedy doesn't get much lower, or better.
The evidence was in the howls of laughter careening across the park.
THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR | By William Shakespeare | Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd. | Through Sept. 10 | (310) 455-2322, theatricum.com
THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR | Independent Shakespeare Company | 4730 Crystal Springs Drive, L.A. | Thurs.-Sat., 7 p.m. | Through July 31 | (818) 710-6306, iscla.org