THE BASICS: THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR, a comedy by William Shakespeare, presented by Shakespeare in Delaware Park (SIDP), opened Thursday, June 22, on a beautiful Buffalo summer evening. It runs through July 15, Tuesdays through Sundays at 7:30 p.m. Directed by Eileen Dugan, the all-woman production stars Pamela Rose Mangus as “Sir John Falstaff” along with Diane DiBernardo, Josie DiVincenzo, Kate Conigisor, Priscilla Young Anker, Victoria Perez, Charmagne Chi, Julia Register, Caitlin Baeumler Coleman, Darleen Pickering Hummert, and others. Admission is free, but a goodwill offering is solicited at intermission by the actors. All performances are on “Shakespeare Hill” near the Rose Garden and Marcy Casino in Delaware Park (tell your GPS it’s 199 Lincoln Parkway, Buffalo, NY 14222). Bring a picnic, a blanket or lawn chair, and perhaps a jacket as performances continue past sundown. Runtime is standard for SIDP: 2 hours and 45 minutes with one 20-minute intermission. Suitable for all ages. For more information, call 856-4533 or visit www.shakespeareindelawarepark.org. The best way to know if a show is cancelled due to weather is to follow Shakespeare in Delaware Park on Facebook. Decisions are typically made after 6:30 p.m.
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: Fat, womanizing, conniving, now old and gassy and a bit dissolute, Sir John Falstaff, down on his luck, conspires to get money from Master Ford and Master Page by first seducing their merry wives, namely Mistress Ford and Mistress Page. The ladies are on to him from the get-go (“What a blubber of knavery is this?”) and conspire themselves to thwart and humiliate him and, ultimately, show him the error of his ways. Of course, there are subplots including Master Ford’s unfounded suspicions that his wife is unfaithful along with the through line of young Anne Page being wooed by three suitors.
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: This is a fine presentation, with strong performances in all roles, and those theatrical elements which we so often take for granted firmly in place: clever costumes by Laurel Walford, good music and funny sound effects chosen by Tom Makar, believable fights choreographed by Steve Vaughan, and crisp set changes managed by Maureen Sheldon and crew. And, as always, you’ll want to get on the hill early for a good seat, but also to look through the 40-page program, worthy of a serious perusal, as the “book outworths a noble’s blood.”
Why an all-female cast? Simply because while there are some great female roles in Shakespeare’s plays, there just aren’t that many, and so many actresses will never have the thrill of being in one of the bard’s plays. Is that a problem for the audience? Not for a moment.
Is it a problem for the cast? No “problems,” but of course, each actor in a pants role had her own journey of discovery. For singer and comedienne Charmagne Chi (“Dr. Caius”) that included aching muscles after her first sword-fight rehearsal. For Pamela Rose Mangus it wasn’t so much being in a Shakespeare play (she had been in SIDP’s MACBETH) but in getting asked to do such an iconic role as “Falstaff.” She spoke of her long career and how she got her start on the stage.
Mangus continued our conversation with some personal observations about rehearsing the role of Falstaff which requires wearing a “fat suit,” extra clothing, and enough on-stage running around that before opening night she had lost ten pounds! When you go see her, you will completely “buy in” to the role.
In her director’s notes, Eileen Dugan (who directed the last SIDP all-female production of MACBETH) notes that she “approached the production without any ‘take’ on the women – they were to be actors, playing the parts as written.”
Why THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR? Again, to quote the director: “The play is not one of Shakespeare’s most critically acclaimed…. Nevertheless, ‘MERRY WIVES’ is distinguished among the plays for a few things. It is the only play in which the action takes place in Shakespeare’s own time, and entirely in small town England. It has no kings or any real royalty, no war context, no exotic locations. It may give us the clearest picture of middle class life in Shakespeare’s day. It is also the play written almost entirely in prose, rather than the iambic pentameter that dominates so much of the canon.” (Emphasis added).
One “aha” moment came when perusing the cast list, with photos and roles identified, and noting the asterisk (*) next to the names of Kate Konigisor (“Master Ford”) and Josie DiVincenzo (“Mistress Page”), identifying them as members of Actor’s Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers. Now there are several such actors in Buffalo, including director Eileen Dugan and, from other stages, John Fredo, Aleks Malesj (this year’s Artie Award winning “Outstanding Lead Actress in a Play”) Richard Lambert and from the Irish Classical Theatre Josephine Hogan and Vincent O’Neill, to name a few. Now in small theatrical spaces such as MusicalFare, Kavinoky, New Phoenix, or Andrews theaters, Equity actors always deliver, as expected, powerful performances, but up close it’s not so obvious that they are “different.”
Now in small theatrical spaces such as MusicalFare, Kavinoky, New Phoenix, or Andrews theaters, Equity actors always deliver, as expected, powerful performances, but up close it’s not so obvious that they are ‘different.’
But here’s what I noticed from a perspective 40 yards up the hill, further from all the players than is usual in a Buffalo theater: While everyone on stage was very good, Konigsor and DiVincenzo were very, very good. Their timing was just a nano-second tighter, and when they spoke, everything was in constant motion – the torso, the hands, the head, the eyes. It’s not that they upstaged the other actors; it’s not that they stood out; it’s not that everybody else didn’t have their own “stage business,” nor is it that others were stiff in the old fashioned declamatory “plant and rant” style. It’s simply that these two were able to deliver a little bit more in any given moment than most.
Most of our Equity actors may have started in Buffalo, but they all went away, on the road and to the coasts, to hone their craft. Experience counts. And it surely helped that Kate Konigisor and Josie DiVincenzo were Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in the last all-woman production (also directed by Eileen Dugan).
Why do I bring this up? If you’ll pardon an analogy I’ve used before, going to your first Shakespeare play can be a little like going to your first professional hockey game. There’s a swirl of activity, all those players and blue lines and red lines and offsides and it’s confusing. I always advise newbies to concentrate on just one skater. If you’re going to see the MERRY WIVES and the play gets a little overwhelming, just follow one or two players. I suggest Konigisor as the suspicious “Master Ford” or DiVincenzo as the saucy “Mistress Page.” Concentrate on them, you’ll have a great time, and will be able to follow the plot pretty well.
Now, on to my only quibble: the sound. Many people approached me after opening night asking if the sound system (all the actors wear head mics) is better this year. Short answer: yes. A lot better. Almost all of the mics worked almost all of the time and the crew was able to avoid that annoying booming “doubling” of sound when two actors are so close that you get both mics picking up an actor’s lines.
However, sometimes it seemed as if some of the actors’ mics were in a dead zone and sometimes it seemed as if the sound crew didn’t jump on the cues fast enough to bring the mics up. I’m not sure what the problems were, but it was mildly annoying. Nowhere near as annoying as last year’s THE TAMING OF THE SHREW, to be sure, but not 100% either.
As last year, I advise you to go twice before the run ends on July 15. Go once to get the basic plot down and to figure out who’s who and what’s what. Then go again to sit back and just let ‘er rip. If I may quote Tim Carroll, the new Artistic Director at a different venue, The Shaw Festival: “Thanks to you, our work will grow, and it will change. So you really need to see every show more than once.” Now, even with the exchange rate, seeing each Shaw play twice might not be feasible. But since SIDP is pay what you can, you can affordably be “twice blessed.”
The second SIDP offering this summer will be Shakespeare’s MACBETH July 27 through August 20, 2017, starring Matt Witten and Lisa Vitrano as the ambitious couple.
Photo: DiBernardo, Mangus (Center), DiVincenzo at SIDP
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!