OK, I know that Shakespeare's "Merry Wives of Windsor" has been adapted, updated, inverted, extroverted and otherwise word-handled in a myriad of ways over the centuries. But I bet the Bard would really roll his eyes at this production.
Think of it as Shakespeare meets "Beach Blanket Babylon." Or a classical farce crossed with Ashland's Fourth of July parade.
As adapted by Festival staffer Alison Carey and directed by Christopher Liam Moore, this is the Oregon Shakespeare Festival doing something totally and absolutely silly and — somewhat amazingly — it actually works.
We've still got the basics here, just updated with a bit of gender-bending plot twisting. Falstaff is now a failed presidential candidate, Senator John Falstaff (David Kelly, looking very much like Rick Perry). Having lost the Iowa caucuses, Falstaff is stuck with a large campaign debt, not to mention a motel bill.
Determined to improve his fortunes, he hatches a plot to seduce not one but two well-off wives of the town, Margaret Page (Terry McMahon) and Alice Ford (Gina McDaniels). Since Falstaff is a self-aggrandizing and pompous figure, the ladies set out to teach him a lesson.
Shakespeare's play also has a couple of ridiculous subplots. Carey's adaptation makes them a bit them more convoluted still by throwing in same-sex relationships, marriage equality and the Iowa State Fair with its 600-pound sculptured butter cow. Not to mention topical political references, gay jokes just this side of offensive, rapid-fire wordplay, bad puns (are there any good puns?), slapstick humor and the traditional chase of bedroom farce.
Here, Margaret and George Page (Ted Deasy) are a heterosexual couple — he is a prosperous corn farmer courtesy of ethanol. Alice and Francie Ford (Robin Goodrin Nordli) are married lesbians — same-sex marriage is legal in Iowa — and Francie is a successful golf pro. Falstaff texts his love messages and the two women learn of his perfidy by comparing their iPhones.
The Pages' daughter Anne (Tala Ashe) is courted by a butch woodcarver, Slender (Kjerstine Rose Anderson), as well as the town's gay German doctor, Kaya (Brooke Parks). But Anne is in love with a male cheerleader, the earnest and chaste Fenton (Miles Fletcher).
Francie Ford's over-the-top jealousy has her willing to go to absurd lengths to prove that her fears of Alice's infidelity are justified. Here, Carey has her disguised as a popcorn lobbyist with a strong resemblance to Orville Redenbacher.
Of course, all of Shakespeare's comic minor characters are here — just written and played wildly over the top. Mistress Quickly, the doctor's servant and go-between for the various intrigues, is transformed into a part-time cheerleading coach. She is played by Catherine E. Coulson, who is dressed in saddle shoes, flouncy skirt and sweater — which she trades for dark glasses and a black trench coat and kerchief when she imparts information about pending liaisons. (Not to mention that Carey and Moore simply cannot resist a visual reference to Coulson's iconic role as the Log Lady from the old "Twin Peaks" television series).
Justice Shallow becomes Roberta Shallow (Isabell Monk O'Connor), the mayor of Windsor, who pushes her niece to court Ann Page. Dr. Hugh Evans (Daniel T. Parker) is no longer a Welsh parson but a visiting Canadian clergyman from the Church of the Unbroken Rainbow, a rotund peacemaker with a weakness for homemade cake.
Judith-Marie Bergan has her delicious turn as the Manager of the Come On Inn, obsessed with showing her prize boar at the State Fair and conned into hiring Falstaff's stranded campaign operatives, his cynical press secretary Pistol (Joe Wegner) and equally cynical bodyguard Nym (DeLanna Studi).
Mostly, the characters play their roles straight (so to speak) but the broad asides, double takes, double entendres and wisecracks all work to keep the audience just a bit off balance. Just what are these people going to say next?
Scenic designer Christopher Acebo has given us blue skies and lots of corn stalks to set the stage. Costume designer Alex Jaegar was definitely on the same wave length as Carey and Moore when he conceived the "look" — including sheep costumes, some outfits out of "The Dukes of Hazard," lots of crinolines and pompoms for the Backhoe Cheering Squad.
Of course, all of this nonsense ends well, fittingly at the Iowa State Fair, the heart and soul of the Hawkeye State. The butter cow sculpture is unveiled — and sings. Francie and Alice kiss and make up. Anne marries Fenton ("We're not afraid to announce we're straight.") Dr. Kaya pairs off with Slender and her chainsaw sculptures. Shallow pairs off with Quickly. The Manager's boar is awarded his well-deserved ribbon. And Falstaff is immortalized with a statue of pure manure.
Somewhere, somehow, Carey, Moore and their cast must have had a hell of a party.
Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at email@example.com.