THE BASICS: Shakespeare’s THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR (first performed in 1600) and OTHELLO (1604) are in repertory with two other plays in the large Festival Theatre at the Stratford [Shakespeare] Festival, two of the dozen plays and musicals in repertory this summer in Stratford, Ontario, including Shakespeare’s lesser known HENRY VIII. (800-567-1600) www.stratfordfestival.ca
MERRY WIVES Runtime: 2 hours, 48 minutes with one intermission. House Program here.
OTHELLO Runtime: 3 hours with one intermission. (Audience Advisory for mature themes and moments of intense violence.) House Program here.
THUMBNAIL SKETCHES: The story goes that Queen Elizabeth I was so enamored of Shakespeare’s dissolute character “Falstaff” who appears in HENRY IV, Parts 1 and 2, that she “commanded” the playwright to bring him back in another play. Shakespeare did this, but Sir John is now quite old, fatter than ever, and not quite mentally able to match wits with the two merry wives whom he is trying to seduce for their husband’s money. In fact, they handily turn the tables on him, and also on one of their husbands, Mr. Ford, who vainly tears his house apart, and almost his marriage, looking in vain for signs of his wife’s infidelity. Fortunately, Mr. Ford only struts and frets, and then accepts the truth in abashed good humor.
OTHELLO, on the other hand, is a “revenge” tragedy, and was written for Elizabeth’s successor, James I (whose mother, incidentally, “Mary Queen of Scots” had been beheaded by Elizabeth). It is atypical in that the revenge is taken on an innocent. Just as Mrs. Ford in MERRY WIVES is innocent, so is Othello’s ever-faithful wife Desdemona. Othello, a celebrated soldier, is goaded into jealousy by a snake named Iago, and can’t pull his suspicions back before they take him over the brink. He ultimately strangles and suffocates the love of his life. Scholars debate whether Shakespeare was sending a message to his sponsor, the newly installed King James, to practice restraint in his treatment of Catholics, witches, and others suspected to be dangerous to the crown. Regardless, what a difference in responses to that nagging voice of doubt.
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: Back here in Buffalo, there’s no doubt that it’s been a great several months for Shakespeare. This spring at Irish Classical Kate LoConti directed an edgy and very popular HAMLET. This summer Shakespeare in Delaware Park has delivered two hits in a row: THE TEMPEST directed by Saul Elkin followed by LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST directed by Steve Vaughan. So you might be asking “Why should I suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous customs lines and drive for two and a half hours each way to see something that I have seen or might someday see for free on the hill in Delaware Park?”
Well, why travel to NYC for a hit musical? Because musicals are what they do on Broadway; it’s in their DNA; it’s a total commitment to being the best. Similarly, even though they’ve dropped the name “Shakespeare” from the name of their Festival, they still have that commitment to the bard in Stratford, Ontario. It’s their mission. When you go, they want you to know that you’re going to see the best. And, regardless of which plays you decide on, the quality is such that you’ll enjoy the experience. Which plays? Well you have a lot of choices.
The Stratford Festival is what is known as “repertory” theater which, like the Shaw Festival, presents a variety of plays all season in quick rotation, so that any afternoon’s or evening’s offerings will be different from the previous several days’ selections. Some people go when they can get time off. Others with more flexibility study the website or printed catalog and put together a “package” of plays which suit them. With a little planning, and one overnight stay, you could see four different plays as well as take in a lecture, or a tour of the costume warehouse, or all sorts of “behind the scenes” educational activities. And the resident actors, many who return season after season, find themselves appearing in at least two, sometimes three plays, often, but not always, alternating a major role in one play with a supporting role in another. It’s part of the fun.
And that brings us to the two plays discussed here; two performances, both alike in dignity, but worlds apart. We saw OTHELLO first, and were completely floored by the intense physicality of the production, directed by Nigel Shawn Williams in his 7th season at the festival. When that Audience Advisory mentions “moments of intense violence” they are not kidding.
In the role of Othello, we had actor Michael Blake, tall and imposing, ramrod straight, every inch the general, but also brooding, quixotic, and dangerous. And we have Gordon S. Miller playing Iago, but not as a fawning, manipulative “Uriah Heep” character, but more as a man of action, a behind the scenes controller, and a consummate liar. Think of the actor Kevin Spacey in his most duplicitous, creepy roles and you’ve got it.
Now, the next day we went back to the Festival Theater for another Shakespeare play, a comedy, THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR, with our Othello (Michael Blake) and Iago (Gordon S. Miller) in completely different roles. This time Blake plays the affable, genial, Mr. Page, father of the bride-to-be. In some productions, Page is presented as petulant, given that his daughter Anne is not interested in the fiancé that he favors. But not here. He is all mirth and joy causing a few flips to open the program, wondering, “can this really be Othello?”
And that wonder is even more pronounced with the arrival of a stock comic character, the “foreigner,” in this case the French Dr. Caius, played by Iago himself, Gordon S. Miller, who gleefully charges into his scenes with abandon. Fracturing the Queen’s English, among many other mispronunciations, he often expresses surprise with the expression “By God” which he mispronounces as “buh GARE” (bugger). Miller is filled with joie de vivre, again causing a few more page flips of the program, wondering, “can this really be Iago?”
The production was directed by “the boss,” Festival Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino, who does not miss a comic trick. And, with the addition of Stratford favorite, actor Geraint Wyn Davies in the role of Falstaff, it’s a very satisfying production.
As mentioned, you can see any of the current plays and musicals and feel well rewarded, but before you invest your time and money and cross that bridge, before you come to it, I strongly urge you to noodle around the website to see what other non-play activities might round out your visit. And be sure to leave time to stroll around the town which features many charming, smaller older homes with delightful gardens. It’s like a season-long “garden walk.”
*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!