In any of Shakespeare’s comedies, some of the “low” characters are usually referred to as clowns. In CalShake’s new production of The Merry Wives of Windsor, there’s a different generic term for funnymen and women: puppets.
And they’re puppets of all sizes, from the “weathercock” messenger Robin, fluttering above the heads of actors, fellow puppets and audience, to Pistol, shaped eponymously like a swaggering blunderbuss, to that character Orson Welles referred to as The Bard’s greatest creation, great in girth, forgivable faults and “only deliberately a clown,” symbol of the Merrie Olde England already waning by Tudor times: Sir John Falstaff, here a veritable blimp, worthy of being a float in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
The story of Merry Wives is simple, yet the plot’s filled with amorous and domestic complications. Like a Chinese box puzzle, the play must dismantle itself before it’s clear who’s fooling who.
However, everybody seems to trick Falstaff, who lumbers along good naturedly at the center of things, heaped with abuse, derision and laughter for the foibles of his vanity. Funnyman Ron Campbell is encased in the huge, billowing frame of the Falstaff zeppelin, characteristically muttering countless asides to himself, and finally emerging in a lather at curtain call.
The biggest go-around is Falstaff’s burlesque wooing of the Merry Wives themselves, Mistresses Page and Ford (Catherine Castellanos and Delia MacDougall), thinking to gain both love and money (to fuel his profligate roistering) by divide-and-conquer tactics.
The wives’ own counter-plot leads the grand buffoon on as does the botched counterintelligence of jealous Master Ford (Anthony Fusco) who alternately goads on Falstaff while in disguise and roars in vengefully to catch him in flagrante, only to come up empty-handed. All the while, Falstaff is consigned to various ignoble—and painful—backdoor exits as dirty linen and in elephantine drag, always in the nick of time.
The final indignity to Sir John proves to be a group masquerade, in which fantastic spirits haze the butt of so many jokes, who, finally wised up, exclaims, “I do begin to perceive that I am made an ass.”
A great deal of the fun of this version is got by the effects of live actors relating to puppet, in particular, Delia MacDougall and Anthony Fusco (who plays Master Ford with all the stops out, more cartoon character from Fractured Fairy Tales than either clown or puppet, in a hilarious performance of manic virtuosity). This develops a rhythm all its own that interweaves with the plot and the outlandish chatter issuing from the puppets of all shapes and sizes.
Danny Sheie and Lorna Howley lend their voices particularly well to their animate charges, though the cookie-cutter cruciform Welsh preacher Hugh Evans veers between Scots and Swedish more than cymrophone, dandling a rosary and crucifix suspicious in Elizabethan hands.
John Ludwig, Chris Brown and Jason Hines have come up with quite a brood of puppets, which both clash and blend in with their human brethren under Sean Daniels’ direction.
Despite its declaration of a proud puppet geneology leading back to the Puritan closing of the theaters and resultant Shakespeare Fests, there are moments when the proceedings seem more like a Vegas floor show with Muppet knock-offs. Neither are the Elizabethan “vagaries of falling in love, and tensions within marriage as an institution” explored or revealed comically, in particular, as resident dramaturg Laura Hope artfully expounds in the program, stitching the season’s plays thematically together.
But the real accent is on fun for everyone, a carefree opener for the season under the summer sky in the hills outside Orinda. For that, the show goes over like a ton of bricks, as intended.
California Shakespeare presents The Merry Wives of Windsor at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 Gateway Blvd., Orinda, Tues.-Thurs 7:30 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 4 p.m., through June 25. For more information, call 548-9666 or see www.calshakes.org.