As Ophelia’s Jump rehearses in anticipation for July’s Midsummer Shakespeare Festival, I spoke with Beatrice Casagran, Founding Artistic Director of OJP, and director of The Merry Wives of Windsor, to dig into the choices and concepts behind the comic counterweight which will be presented in repertory with Macbeth.
RM: This play is pretty far from the darkness of Macbeth. What inspired you to contrast the two?
BC: Exactly that difference. I wanted the audience to have the opportunity to see two very different plays. When I chose the season and as (Macbeth director) Kevin Slay and I developed and discussed our metaphors and concepts for the summer Shakespeare Festival, our concept of the dichotomies in the shows led us to look for eras with similar differences. We zeroed in on the late 60’s and finally on 1969. While we’ve chosen a unifying chronological concept, the audience will experience two wholly different theatrical performances that nevertheless express different aspects of the era we’ve set the plays in.
RM: Merry Wives is less performed than other pieces like Twelfth Night or A Midsummer Night’s Dream. How do you think audiences will respond to a play that many may not be familiar with?
BC: I think Merry Wives is hilarious and very accessible. It is a good example of the situation comedy that audiences know well and love. Just like audiences still laugh at the antics of Lucy and Ethel from 60 years ago, the Merry Wives zany revenge plots, big wacky characters, and comic treatment of potentially tragic themes like jealousy, greed, and adversity in love still speak to audiences. At the heart of every comedy is a tragedy. Comedy comes from our need to survive tragedy. So juxtaposing these two plays makes sense to me. Moreover, these are characters that we identify with and through them we can laugh at ourselves. Even [suspicious husband] Ford, who is crotchety, unreasonably jealous, and sexist ends up learning his lesson, and if played well, is more lovable than damnable. The play moves along quickly and includes lots of physical comedy that makes it a fun romp and the perfect foil for Macbeth’s dark violence.
RM: How are you zeroing in on the 60’s concept, on what exemplifies that era?
BC: The emphasis is on telling the funny story that Shakespeare wrote. It is important to me, as a director, that the “concept” serve rather than overtake the story. That being said, we are setting it in the late 60’s because I think it sits well there. These wives…do not let themselves be victimized by men and they teach both the grifting Falstaff and the hot-headed, jealous Ford lessons that each is not likely to forget. So there are undercurrents in the story that fit with the changes brought about by the 2nd wave feminism of the 60’s. However, historically the middle classes had embraced the prevailing mores of society. Just like Mistress Ford and Mistress Page seem to accept society’s insistence on the chastity of women, middle class American women of the 60’s by and large did not burn their bras and join communes.
The story of [Merry Wives’ lovers] Anne and Fenton, who defy the wishes of the older generation to set their own course also resonates in the 60’s. Young people began to chart their own paths and became much more independent of their parents. The reactions of Master and Mistress Page to their daughter’s elopement is very modern in its acceptance and understanding. In today’s ever diversifying society, where the roles of parents and children are constantly evolving, audiences can identify with both the wish of the Pages to try to ensure what they think is a safe, secure future for their daughter and with their love and acceptance when she chooses her own path.
There is even a character, Slender, who is arguably gay. As I read the play several times, it became more and more obvious that this character was ready to be outed. It’s all there in the words Shakespeare wrote. All we are doing is interpreting the situation more openly in a way that, I think, clarifies the story and makes it evident why Slender must never marry Anne. The choice works for the growing awareness and acknowledgement of homosexuality in the 60’s and is definitely communicative to today’s audiences. Lastly, Merry Wives tells the story of average yet diverse people we all know. It is a city play, which means its subjects are us. It is not about the adventures of the rich and famous, but about the characters that inhabit the world down below where most of us live. The play reveals how colorful and entertaining those characters can be.
Whatever the outcome of this match of wits and romances, Ophelia’s Jump will deliver on vivid characters and hysterical situations. The show will open July 17th at the Sontag Greek Theater in Claremont. Buy tickets at opheliasjump.org or over the phone at 909-624-1464.