The first thing Alison Carey wants you to know is that she has no intention of improving Shakespeare.
Carey's "The Very Merry Wives of Windsor, Iowa," a re-imagining of Shakespeare's famous play about "Falstaff in love," will open June 16 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Elizabethan Stage.
"I am no William Shakespeare by any means," says Carey. "It's mostly because of what he inspires in me. It's just a way of looking at the play."
In this new, spiritual descendant of Shakespeare's rollicking domestic comedy — it's the only play he ever set in the England of his day — Falstaff is now a Washington politician who has lost badly in the Iowa caucuses, Mistress Ford is in a same-sex marriage, and the Garter Inn has become the Come On Inn.
Christopher Liam Moore will direct, and Falstaff will be played by David Kelly.
A co-founder with Moore and OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch of Cornerstone Theatre in 1986, Carey is no stranger to making old Shakespearean things new. She has previously created updates of plays including "Twelfth Night" and "As You Like It."
She says such works are intended in part to create a "visceral relationship" with the Bard's works.
"Every generation has their way of looking (at the plays). "… If he were alive today he'd be writing different plays. He wrote for his audience."
In Shakespeare's tale, the fat knight finds himself in Windsor, broke, and decides to court two wealthy married women, Mistress Ford and Mistress Page, in hopes of gaining access to their husbands' purses. In a subplot, the Pages' daughter, Anne, is being courted by three young men. Falstaff not only plays city slicker/outsider to the community, he disrespects the institution of marriage, for which he must get his comeuppance.
It's long been claimed that the play was written by order of Queen Elizabeth, who wanted to see "Falstaff in love." Its events in no way jibe with the times of the other Shakespeare plays in which Falstaff appears, the two parts of "Henry IV" and "Henry V," all of which are set in medieval times (Carey calls it "disconnected"). Not regarded as one of the better plays in the canon, it is full of marvelous jokes and inspired silliness and is popular with audiences.
Carey says she was attracted to it by its being contemporary with Shakespeare's life and by its being about middle-class people. She notes that it has more prose and far less verse, about four pages, than usual for Shakespeare.
"You're adapting worlds, so you start with the main character," she says. "If he's a knight fallen on hard times, who are the fallen heroes today? When do politicians fall on hard times?"
The Iowa caucuses fill that bill.
"The notion of being someone who doesn't respect the notion of marriage in modern times," Carey continues. "What's happening in marriage? Gay marriage! I never thought it would be legal in my lifetime. Maybe it should be set someplace it's legal."
Looming over this "Merry Wives" is the upcoming Iowa State Fair, reflected by, among other things, a puppet butter-cow. But one thing the play is not, Carey says, is a send-up of rural life.
"Shakespeare is on the side of the community," she says. "The troublemaker was the city slicker. This is a celebration of that iconic (farm) culture."
In its early days, Cornerstone took plays on the road to rural areas with little or no live theater. Carey and her husband lived in rural Kansas for a time.
She says it's "hard to quantify" how many of Shakespeare's original lines remain in the play, and a lot of his metaphors and images have been rewritten. But a lot of the jokes are similarly skewed and timed.
"I tried to make mine match the intention," she says. "It's a mix. If you put my script next to Shakespeare's, they'd look alike."
In the end, Carey says, Shakespeare, like the institution of marriage, can accommodate many different visions. And "Merry Wives," in whatever iteration, is, after all, not to be taken too seriously.
"It's not a statement," she says. "It's a laugh riot."
Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.