Saturday, September 29, 2012

OSF: The Very Merry Wives of Windsor, Iowa

It can be a hit-or-miss prospect to set Shakespeare plays in a radically different time and place. We've seen Hamlet as a greaser, The Taming of the Shrew featuring boy and girl gangs, A Comedy of Errors placed in the wild west, and Two Gentlemen of Verona set in a modern prep school. West Side Story is a retelling of Romeo and Juliet set in 1950s New York. It worked for Akira Kurosawa to set Macbeth in feudal Japan for Throne of Blood, though a stage production of the same at Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2010 was an utter disaster that we chose, mercifully, not to review.

Terri McMahon as Margaret Page and
Gina Daniels as Alice Ford in The Very
Merry Wives of Windsor, Iowa. OSF
photo by Jenny Graham.
We are delighted to report that, as crazy as it sounds, it totally worked for OSF to transport the Bard's wives of Elizabethan England to the modern-day American Midwest for the world premiere of The Very Merry Wives of Windsor, Iowa. This hilarious adaptation was written by Alison Carey and directed by Christopher Liam Moore.

Moore's notes about the show in the playbill call it "a profoundly silly play about deeply serious things." This is an understatement. The central character of Wives is U.S. Senator John Falstaff, hanging around The Hawkeye State after his presidential campaign flamed out in the Iowa caucuses. This leaves him little to do except try to get laid; his targets are every woman on his text message list, with a focus on Alice Ford, the wife of professional golfer Francie Ford, and Margaret Page, wife of farmer George Page. The Pages, solid supporters of Iowa's same-sex marriage law, are working hard at setting up their cheerleader daughter Anne with women, though Anne is straight and has her eyes on male cheerleader Fenton. Throw in a trip to the Iowa State Fair, a 600-pound cow made of butter, and a giant bust of Falstaff carved from manure, and you have the makings of a heck of a comedy.

The actors are all so great it seems unfair to single out any, but I will note a few favorites. David Kelly is a marvelous comedic actor who anchored last year's Imaginary Invalid (alas, unreviewed, but our favorite of the 2011 festival) and is beautifully slimy as Sen. Falstaff. Terri McMahon and Gina Daniels are a riot as Margaret Page and Alice Ford, and concoct several comeuppances for Falstaff, who is easy to fool more than once, when they discover they've received the same sext-message from the senator. (He knows Alice is a lesbian but figures he can convert her.) Robin Goodrin Nordli is a scream as Francie Ford, and especially as her alter ego "Mr. Dodge", a big-money popcorn lobbyist who bears an eerie resemblance to Orville Redenbacher, and in whose guise she approaches Falstaff in order to gather intelligence about her cheating wife, who isn't cheating on her. Brooke Parks is amazingly Teutonic as the German Doctor Kaya, in a feud with Daniel T. Parker's Canadian Rev. Hugh Evans (of the Church of the Unbroken Rainbow) about whose nation's hockey team is supreme. This is not to even mention Judith-Marie Bergan, the Manager of the Come On Inn coffee shop who expects to win a ribbon at the fair this year with her prized boar Sir Sweeney.

Carey's adaptation is true to Shakespeare's story and deftly modernizes it, with all of the dirty jokes and puns we expect from the Bard. Love and marriage win out in the end, regardless of the genders of the participants. Even Doctor Kaya and Slender Shallow, disguised as sheep, find each other and pair up in the end.  The Very Merry Wives of Windsor, Iowa is wonderful theater and plays in OSF's Elizabethan Stage in Ashland through Oct. 13.

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