A Merry First Trip to the Theater
How did a neophyte theatergoer feel about The Merry Wives of Windsor at Trinity Rep?
We e-mailed a great deal during the months that followed and I eventually suggested that, the next time I came to Boston, I'd take him to dinner and a show. When David told me that he now lives closer to Providence, Rhode Island, I was even more enthusiastic -- for that's the home of my beloved Trinity Repertory Company.
It was called the Trinity Square Repertory Company when I first visited it in 1967 and saw the world premiere production of The Grass Harp. Imperfect though the musical was, Adrian Hall's direction was exciting, as were Claibe Richardson's music and Kenward Elmslie's lyrics. And how they got Elaine Stritch, Barbara Baxley, Carol Bruce, and Carol Brice to Providence is still beyond me. I adored the show from the first strains of the heavenly "Yellow Drum" in the overture to the final strains of the same melody in the finale -- which, I'll grant you, had the meek triumphing over the wicked by having the good guys throwing pies in the villains' faces. But I was so in love with the song by that point that I didn't even care and applauded in glee. (Still, I'm glad the songwriters eventually came up with the beautifully haunting "Reach Out" instead.)
David agreed to meet me at Trinity before I had a chance to see what was playing there. I visited the troupe's website and, uh-oh, found that it was The Merry Wives of Windsor. Lord knows, this play is not Shakespeare's finest achievement; the legend that the Bard wrote it in two weeks may not be true but, frankly, I've never had a hard time believing it.
This overwrought work starts with Shallow, a country justice of the peace whose nephew Slender he has earmarked for Anne Page, a local beauty with a handsome dowry. But Anne loves Fenton, to the consternation of her parents. Though the play starts with them, none of these is the main character; Falstaff is. Legend also has it that Queen Elizabeth saw Falstaff in the Henry IV plays and decided she'd like to see the fat knight in love. If that's what she said, Shakespeare didn't really follow the royal decree, because he instead put Falstaff in lust -- not just with Anne's mother, Mistress Page, but also with her pal Mistress Ford. So-called hi-jinks ensue.
Well, I figured that David and I would have a good time catching up at dinner even if the theatrical part of the evening would be a disappointment. So we met at 5pm at the theater -- which, I noticed, is now located on Adrian Hall Way. I was so happy that Trinity's first artistic director, who stayed on the job from 1964 to 1989, has had his quarter-century tenure commemorated by having a street named for him!
For the next two-and-three-quarter hours over dinner, David and I traded stories and dutifully clucked over pictures of loved ones (including his dog). So far, so great -- but now would come The Merry Wives of Windsor. The moment I entered the theater, I relaxed a little, for I saw a stunning set courtesy of one of my favorite designers, Beowulf Boritt. Director Kevin Moriarty decided to set the show in the present day, in an apartment complex called -- as the big, bright, red-letter lights on the right wall proclaimed -- The Windsor. Boritt offered us a cross-section of the building; the top level was Falstaff's bachelor pad, done in blue and orange (maybe the knight was a Mets fan?) with a prominently placed dart board, a mini-basketball hoop, and a few soft-core erotic paintings. A real grown-up kid's apartment.
The show began with Falstaff, his cronies Nim and Pistol, and plenty of others partying to the consternation of the neighbors below -- the Fords and the Pages, who were poking broomsticks at the ceiling to let Falstaff know that they didn't appreciate all the noise. They would have felt worse had they seen the carnage going on up there, not to mention a few people rolling an unruly drunk out the window and onto the fire escape.
Moriarty wasn't shy about casting a genuinely fat, pear-shaped actor as Falstaff: Fred Sullivan, Jr. made Zero Mostel look like Donna Murphy. When lines were spoken about "700 pounds," I at first assumed that they referred to Falstaff's weight but I soon realized that they actually referred to Anne Page's money. For that matter, the director wasn't afraid to make Mistress Page (Janice Duclos) unglamorous. In fact, she rather resemble Roseanne Barr at her least attractive, though Mistress Ford (Phyllis Kay) was lovely enough.
Sullivan's Falstaff turned out to be as light on his feet as was this production, so I relaxed a bit more. David always loved words, I remembered, so I was sure he'd appreciate finding that Shakespeare invented such phrases as "Thereby hangs a tale" (from Mistress Quickly), "There's the short and the long of it" (from Nim), and Mistress Page asking "What the Dickens is his name?" -- thereby letting us see that the expression long predated the author of David Copperfield. As for me, I was delighted to see Barbara Meek still on the job. I checked the program and saw that this was her 91st Trinity production. Here she was as a bubble-headed Mistress Quickly who spoke in Brooklynese and thus offered both "woi-ship" and "soi-vice."
Much of the time, though, I was looking out of the corner of my eye to see if David felt that all of this was worth an 80-minute drive. Yes, he was smiling, chuckling, and occasionally laughing out loud -- but he really came alive when Master Francis Ford, much worried about being cuckolded, went into the audience and talked directly to the spectators. As one audience member consoled Ford by patting the poor guy's head and offering him his shoulder, I realized that the first time I ever saw an actor break the fourth wall was at The Grass Harp when Babylove sent her children Bubber Texaco, Burmashave, Dixiecup, Dr. Pepper, and Juicyfruit into the crowd to make us hang a little moolah on the washline. I looked at David, grinned with satisfaction, and said: "You don't get this at a movie!"
He agreed with such force that a certain thought occurred to me. I saved it until intermission and posed it gingerly: "Do you go to the theater much?" I was fully prepared to hear that he didn't; theater tickets are expensive, after all, and David had five mouths to feed (including the dog). "Actually," he said, "I've never seen a play before." After I blurted out a surprised "Never?!" he said that he'd seen his cousin act a few times in college but it was nothing like this. In other words, he'd never seen a professional production.
"So what did you expect?" I asked. "Pantaloons and tights?" "You know," he said, "I didn't even think of what it would look like; I thought more about what it would be like. I'm surprised that it's so... zany," he said, picking the precisely right word. "There's a little Three Stooges going on here."
How delighted David was during the second act to find out that he was more right than he suspected. As for me, I felt as if I'd come full circle, for the culmination of the evening was...yes, a pie fight! To make matters more fun, Moriarty directed an actor to hand a pie to a front row patron and instruct him to throw it into Frank Ford's face. But, that night, the audience member just wouldn't play ball: He kept the pie in one hand and, with the other, pointed to Falstaff. Sullivan waved his hands in a "No way" gesture and shook his head vigorously from side to side, but the audience member wouldn't take no for an answer. So Falstaff finally breathed heavily, shrugged his shoulders, and took Ford's pie in his face. "I told you, Three Stooges!" David exclaimed with glee. "And you don't get that at a movie, either!"
How wonderful it was to hear him use that expression! (What was also wonderful: This was the most fun-filled production of Merry Wives I've ever seen, including the much-lauded one at the Barbican in 1987.) I dared to think that this would not be David's last trip to the theater. Sure enough, not long after I arrived home, there was an e-mail from him expressing interest in a local production of West Side Story. Nice to see that the long-retired English teacher still has the capacity to show something new to a former student.