Jody Ecklund plays Dr. Caius, a French physician, in “Merry Wives of Windsor.”
For a change, think inside the [black] box
If you’ve lived in larger cities … say New York or even Orlando … you may have seen Shakespeare performed outdoors in a park on midsummer evenings. If so, you know how enjoyable it is to watch the Bard’s plays with a glass of wine as evening gives way to night. But even if you haven’t, Mammoth residents and visitors are in for a rare treat next weekend, as Sierra Classic Theatre celebrates its 10-year anniversary by presenting Shakespeare in the round and outdoors at Sam’s Woodsite with the local debut of the comedy “Merry Wives of Windsor.”
Supposedly written hastily in only three weeks at the request of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, “Merry Wives” isn’t one of Shakespeare’s higher-regarded works among theater intellectuals, some of whom have criticized it for not being as well thought out and serious as some of his other, better known plays. If “Romeo and Juliet” had been a hit single, “Merry Wives” would have been its overlooked, throwaway B-side.
Nonetheless, the play’s broader comedy has earned it something of a cult following among audiences who have been lucky enough to see it performed. Reprising Sir John Falstaff (from “Henry IV,” parts I & II) and some characters found in other Shakespeare works, it is arguably the only play he wrote that deals specifically with contemporary middle-class society of the day.
The basic plot sounds like the premise of any good sitcom or romantic comedy movie. When Falstaff arrives in Windsor very short on money, he tries to turn things to his financial advantage and court two wealthy married women: Mistress Ford and Mistress Page. Falstaff decides to send the women identical love letters, and asks his servants (Pistol and Nym) to deliver them to the wives. When the women receive the letters, each tells the other and they quickly find that the letters are virtually identical. The “merry wives” are not interested in the aging, overweight Falstaff as a suitor; however, for their own amusement and to exact a little revenge for his indecent assumptions towards them, they pretend to respond to his advances.
The play’s director, Allison McDonell Page, who’s directing her second play, thinks it’s the comedy that has made it translate so well to our time. “It’s lesser known, but really hilarious,” she observed. “The setting is a small town that could be Mammoth Lakes, it’s summer and everyone’s out of work, with too much time on their hands. They drink a little too much and play pranks on their friends. Sound familiar?”
Most of his other works are famous for their political intrigue and relationship struggles, but “Merry Wives” is atypical, running much closer to what we think of today as a “romantic comedy.” Shakespeare departed from what was for him the norm and instead stereotypes of love, marriage, jealousy, revenge, infidelity, not to mention nationalities and the caste system that was part of England society then.
Picking the show wasn’t easy. “We couldn’t do ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and ‘As You Like It’ had already been done recently,” Allison recalled. “I considered ‘Twelfth Night,’ but it’s too serious and the character of Viola frankly isn’t that funny.” When SCT opted for “Merry Wives,” she knew that was the play. “It’s sort of like Moliere, lots of physical humor, costume gags. It’s also written in prose, as opposed to iambic pentameter, so it’s a little easier to understand. And I was able to cut it down from three hours to two.”
Shakespeare and other playwrights of the period had to be repetitive for less sophisticated audiences. Purists may not approve, but the trend nowadays is to edit the redundant scenes, dialogue and even superfluous characters for more concise presentations.
“Merry Wives” has a large, 13-player cast, including some who play multiple parts. “I was amazed to be able to find that many great actors, and in summer no less!” Allison enthused. Still, summer schedules haven’t been exactly accommodating. “We haven’t been able to have one complete run-through with the entire cast.” Though Allison’s directed before, and coached actors, this will be her first try at Shakespeare, and as an actor with 15 years of professional acting experience in New York and L.A., characters are understandably important. “I like that this is very low-tech. We’re outdoors, in the round, with no sound system, no lights … it’s very liberating,” she explained. “It lets me focus on the characters and the humor. We don’t have sets as such, but we use traditional costumes and props. We’ll even have a minstrel (John Jacoby). I wanted to have a Renaissance Faire feel to it.”
For those unfamiliar with Allison, her background not only includes acting on stage and screen, but also producing, casting and coaching actors. “I really like regional theatre. I performed in upstate New York and the City, but I’ve also done Tennessee Williams in Marin County in the Tiburon Hills.” Allison said she finds that camaraderie is one of the best parts of community theatre. “You become a family for a few months, you live and breath the show, and work together on it.”
Locally, Allison auditioned for the part of Maggie in last year’s SCT production of “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof,” but had to bow out due to schedule conflicts with a touring show to which she had contractual commitments. “I’ve been meaning to get involved in theater here for sometime, and Shake
when Stacy [Corless] told me SCT wanted to do Shakespeare this summer I jumped at the chance to direct.”
“Merry Wives” will, however, have a few fun modern theatrical quirks to it. Watch for very minimalist, almost Dogma film-like production design (by Sean Burditt) and set pieces, strategic use of flashlights later in the show and sound effects (such as a dogs barking) performed by the cast.
SCT Board member Corless said “Merry Wives” harkens back to the troupe’s early days when the Bard was a meat-and-potatoes staple. “I’m so excited about this show and Shakespeare in the woods this summer,” Corless effused. “Sierra Classic Theatre’s been around for a decade now, and I can’t think of a better way to celebrate community theatre than this type of performance.”
SCT veterans in the cast include: Chuck Scatolini as Sir John Falstaff, the fat Knight; Lesley Bruns as Mistress Alice Ford, a merry wife, Jarrett Smith playing Mistress Margaret Page, another merry wife; Natalie Wolf as Mistress Quickly, servant to Doctor Caius; Dan Dennis as Mr. George Page, a Windsor gentleman, Marcus Nobreus as Mr. Francis Ford, another Windsor gentleman; and Jim Marcotte as Pistol, a Falstaff follower and also Fenton, a gentleman.
The “newbies” in the cast are: Jody Ecklund as Dr. Caius, a French physician; Ken Butner as Sir High Evans, a Welsh Parson; Maureen Jacoby as Roberta Shallow, a country Justice (this character as written was Robert Shallow, but Allison decided to retool the part as woman); recent Mammoth High School Drama Dept. graduates Rodrigo Garcia Gomez as Abraham Slender, cousin to Shallow and John Rugby, servant to Dr. Caius, and Samantha Taylor as Anne Page, Mistress Page’s daughter, as well as the Host of the Garter Inn and Robin, the page to Falstaff; and last but not least Catherine Wheat as Nym, a follower of Falstaff and Peter Simple, a servant to Slender. Helping out whenever necessary is current SCT President and fellow vet Greg Young.
And two male audience members will have a chance to join in a scene. You won’t have lines, just some action, but there is one SMALL costuming requirement: you’ll have to dress up like women. (Remember, guys, this was commonplace in Shakespeare’s day, so you’ll be part of a long-standing theatrical tradition.)
Bring some camping-type chairs or cushions and blankets, and don’t forget a bottle of vino. For the barley and hops crowd, Sean Turner and the gang from Mammoth Brewing Company will have MBC products on sale as well. “It’s Shakespeare … the drunker, the better,” Allison quipped.
“Merry Wives” is family friendly, PG at most for some adult themes. The play shows at 6 p.m. nightly, July 23-25 and July 30-31 and Aug. 1. All performances are free, but donations will be gratefully accepted. Info: www.sierraclassictheatre.org.
Think inside the Black Box
Think INSIDE the box, at least that’s the idea when it comes to staging and viewing Black Box-style theatre. And apparently audiences responded so well to the minimalist productions in last year’s inaugural festival that Mammoth Lakes Repertory Theatre Director Shira Dubrovner brought it back.
Produced in association with the Mammoth Lakes Foundation and sponsors Snowcreek Resort and the Terry & Paula Plum family, this year’s Black Box Festival, which plays from July 22-Aug. 1, sports three new shows: “The Bible: The Complete Word of God (Abridged),” “Agnes of God” and “Nunsense.”
“Last year’s festival was an expensive prospect, but the response we received from locals and visitors alike was very positive, so we’re doing it again,” Dubrovner said. “We want it to grow into an annual, bigger event, and team up more with Sierra Classic Theatre and other companies, but for now three shows is what we can handle.”
Dubrovner added that she thinks all the theatre going on in town makes coming to Mammoth even more attractive to families who are planning their summers. “A lot of theatre festivals are held in the summer, and are intentionally scheduled around family travel. Last year, lots of people who were in the area camping came to all three shows. Visitors will make trips to places with lots of theatre, so more shows make for a more exciting experience.”
Sheet: What is it about Black Box that’s different from the typical theatrical experience?
Dubrovner: The Black Box concept dates back to the ‘60s when productions were staged in New York City storefronts. With the minimalist sets, you get shows that are about the performance and how creative the actors can be in terms of conveying the setting.
Sheet: And changing the shows nightly has to be a consideration.
Dubrovner: Every night, we change the shows, so set up and tear down has to happen fast. That’s a big piece of criteria when it comes to picking shows, in addition to entertaining the patrons.
This year, the theme happens to be religion. The PG-13 rated “The Bible: Abridged” is a good-natured, condensed spoof of the good book from “fig leaves to final judgment.” Two of the three-person cast who play all the characters in the Old and New Testament, starred in last year’s “Greater Tuna.”
“It’s just funny … it’s totally not offensive to anyone,” Dubrovner comments. Same with the family-friendly musical, “Nunsense,” in which a convent stages a variety show.
The festival isn’t all fun and levity, however. “Agnes of God,” an intellectual, thought-provoking drama about the young Sister Agnes, a novice nun who sings in an ethereal voice and insists she was impregnated by an “unknown entity,” lends an air of mystery to the festival’s lineup. (Dubrovner cautions this show is for mature audiences only.)
Tickets for individual shows are $25 (students/seniors are $22 and kids 13 and under are just $13). Festival passes are $60 for the entire program. Show times: “The Bible” July 22, 30, 31 at 7:30 p.m.; July 25 at 2 p.m.
“Nunsense” July 24, 31 at 2 p.m.; July 25 at 6 p.m.; Aug. 1 at 2 p.m. and 6 p.m.
“Agnes of God” July 23, 24, 29 at 7:30 p.m.
The festival is held at the Mammoth Lakes Arts Center, 549 Old Mammoth Rd., across from the Mammoth Lakes Police Dept. Tix and info: call 760.709.1981.