“The Merry Wives of Windsor” — up at the Shakespeare Theatre Company through July 15 — is a sumptuously staged comedic farce about English middle-class mores being challenged.
The play centers on the quest of older, corpulent military man Sir John Falstaff (David Schramm) to get rich quick.
In “Merry Wives,” Falstaff — who also appears in “Henry IV,” parts one and two — has returned to England, broke after years at war. He sets about attempting to seduce the wives of two wealthy men, Ford and Page, in order to wriggle money, and perhaps some affection, from the ladies.
The misses, Alice Ford (Caralyn Kozlowski) and Margaret Page (Veanne Cox), however, quickly become wise to Falstaff’s game, and they plot to teach the old rascal a lesson.
At the same time, a series of young men try to woo the young Anne Page (Alyssa Gagarin) and insanity ensues.
“The Merry Wives of Windsor” isn’t William Shakespeare’s funniest work, but it is the Bard’s only play set in his own time, which in and of itself casts doubt on its authorship.
“There is a lot of conjecture about when it was written and whether [Shakespeare] wrote it,” says the play’s director, Stephen Rayne.
It is a unique play, not simply because the playwright was writing about his own time, Rayne says, but because he was writing about the middle class. It was, he explains, a clear reaction to the social changes the playwright was observing.
At the end of the 16th century, when the play was written, England was bankrupt after years of wars.
“People were poorer off,” Rayne says. “I tried to find a period in history which parallels the end of the 16th century.”
According to Rayne, many “Merry Wives” productions set the action in England in the 1950s, but he chose not to.
“I thought it would be interesting to set it after the Great War,” he says. At that time, “the new middle class was beginning to emerge in London.”
Those in the middle class became preoccupied with raising their status. Those in the upper classes were struggling to maintain their lifestyle. This production attempts to examine some of the everyday “small negotiations between the classes,” Rayne says.
The production is set before the jazz age, as the suffragette movement was gaining momentum and England struggled to recover from the destruction of a generation in World War I.
“From 1919, women could [begin to] stand on their own,” Rayne says. This production is about a group of women who mange to fool Falstaff, their families and their husbands.
Each of the women on stage demands and snatches the freedom to choose whom she loves and the right to be trusted by the men in her life.
More broadly, Shakespeare studies human characters as they struggle to negotiate a multiplicity of interests.
It is a play where ordinary people find themselves in extraordinary positions, Rayne says. And everyone can relate to that.
“Any society can relate to wanting to improve your lot, [or] disenchanted soldiers coming home from a foreign war,” he says. It is about the plight of an older man, a veteran who is struggling to live and live well.
The show examines a time when people felt that their wealth and status determined their worth — even those without either — a sentiment that should be familiar to many D.C. denizens
“[‘Merry Wives’] always seems to work with an audience,” Rayne says. “It always proves very popular with the audiences.”