Outdoor ‘Merry Wives of Windsor’ channels playful spirit of the Bard at Chesapeake Shakespeare Company

The communal atmosphere filled with laughter and music is a delightful way for both adults and children to spend a summer evening.

Shakespeare would have loved this.

Walking up the gentle slope to the PFI Historical Park, you could hear children laughing and light banjo music, urging you forward. Shakespearean quotes graced signs on the hike, reminding audience members to take their time and endure, for the payoff at the end would be worthwhile. And boy, were they right.

Fabiolla De Silva (Mistress Meg Page), Shaquille Stewart (Sir John Falstaff), and Emily Zinski (Mistress Alice Ford) appearing in Chesapeake Shakespeare Company’s ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor.’ Publicity photo by Keston de Coteau of Keystone Productions LLC.

Chesapeake Shakespeare Company has done an excellent job channeling the spirit of the Bard with their outdoor production of The Merry Wives of Windsor. Creating spaces for children and adults alike to experience Shakespeare in their own ways: a build-your-own-antlers table stocked with rainbow pipe cleaners, a pre-play “storytime” with a delightful abridged summary of the play, a maypole at intermission, and plenty of chances to sing along with the talented ensemble cast. It was a true testament to Shakespeare (and to the CSC) that my six-year-old understood the entirety of the plot and found herself thoroughly enchanted by the performances.

For those unfamiliar with the play, Merry Wives is one of Shakespeare’s more convoluted and lesser-loved comedies (likely written in a hurry, according to numerous theories of the play’s origin). The main plot follows the bankrupt knight Sir John Falstaff as he conspires to win the affections (and the purses) of the prominent Mrs. Page and Mrs. Ford of Windsor. The two women realize quickly that they have both received the same declarations of love from Falstaff and decide to play along, luring him into ridiculous situations to expose his silly and lecherous behaviors. The secondary plot revolves around the marriage propositions of the fair (and equally wealthy) Mistress Anne Page. Her father decrees she marry the landed but simpleminded Slender while her mother wishes the rich but demanding French physician Doctor Caius to be her betrothed. Anne, on the other hand, has fallen in love with the upper-class but broke poet Fenton. As one can only imagine with the Bard’s comedies, crossed wires and hijinks ensue until everyone is laughing, married, and happy.

In the heart of the PFI ruins, the CSC has created a stage that blends beautifully with the historic stone facade and the manicured landscape of the park. Picnic tables, foldable chairs, and blankets were spread along the lawn, cooled in the summer heat by a soft breeze and the shade of large trees overhead. In true Shakespearean style, music was playing (canned and live) throughout the night, food and drink were welcome, and general chatting among the audience was considered normal. Children helped each other talk through the big moments of the plot, adults sipped on glasses of wine, and everyone laughed, clapped, and sang together in earnest creating a communal energy that I have not experienced at a Shakespeare production in a long while.

As for the production itself, the cast created a strong ensemble of delightfully silly characters. Josh Williams and Elijah Williams were standouts in their joint roles of Sir Hugh Evans/Nym and Doctor Caius/Pistol, respectively. Both men wielded accents and rapiers with hilarious abandon, never afraid to milk a humorous moment for all it was worth. Holly Gibbs’ jovial and meddling Mistress Quickly and Andrea Spitz’s Host of the Garter Inn were also a delight to watch. Their facial expressions and interactions with every scene kept the stage buzzing. Brendan Murray and Alex Mungo were a brilliant team as Robert Shallow and Slender — the very definition of the straight man and clown combination that works so well in comedies like these. Taking everything as serious as the grave, the resulting comic moments were golden. I also have to give a hat tip to James McClam’s endearing turn as Peter Simple. Gentle, silly, and devastatingly honest, McClam morphed a character that could easily be relegated to the sidelines into one of my new favorite roles.

As Anne Page and Fenton, Dion Denisse Penaflor and Harry Denby presented an attractive and charming couple in love. Denby’s earnest adoration of his partner was sweet to witness, and Penaflor’s gentle nature was punctuated by her plucky spirit, proving that she has what it takes to join her mother and Mrs. Ford as the merriest wives of Windsor. Dylan Arredondo’s Master George Page and Kevin Alan Brown’s Master Frank Ford were wonderful counterpoints to their onstage wives. Brown’s emotional rollercoaster was fervent and feverish, his jealousy ignited by the love and passion he felt for his wife (as well as the desire to avoid cuckolding). Arredondo’s Page was also quite lovely — his steadfast support for his friends in their times of need was sincere and humorous at turns.

But it is the trio of Fabiolla Da Silva (Mistress Meg Page), Emily Zinski (Mistress Alice Ford), and Shaquille Stewart (Sir John Falstaff) that makes the production particularly memorable. Da Silva and Zinski’s friendship is reminiscent of the deepest levels of sisterhood. With secret handshakes, coded language (the “hissing” scene is wonderful), and ridiculously overacted ruses, these two were enthralling to watch together. Stewart’s Falstaff was equally sublime, hitting all of the raunchiest lines and finding the most humorous moments within the frivolity of the character. From laundry baskets to witches and wigs to antlers and undergarments, Stewart gives us a full vision of Falstaff that shows the growth of humility and common sense that the character is known for in the Bard’s later plays.

CSC’s production of Merry Wives makes the trip out to Old Ellicott City well worth your while. Bring your friends, bring your family, and make an evening to remember out of it. The communal atmosphere filled with laughter and music is a delightful way to spend a summer evening. This might just be one of the closest examples of what Shakespeare was truly all about.

Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission.

The Merry Wives of Windsor plays through July 21, 2024, presented by Chesapeake Shakespeare Company performing at PFI Historic Park, 3655 Church Rd. Ellicott City, MD. Ticket prices are $25 and up (free for all children 18 and under, limit 2 per adult ticket) and available online.

The program for The Merry Wives of Windsor is online here.

The Merry Wives of Windsor

By William Shakespeare
Directed by Ben Lambert

SIR JOHN FALSTAFF – Shaquille Stewart
MISTRESS MEG PAGE – Fabiolla Da Silva
GEORGE PAGE, her husband – Dylan Arredondo
ANNE PAGE, their daughter – Dion Denisse Peñaflor
FRANK FORD, her husband – Kevin Alan Brown
SIR HUGH EVANS, a clergyman – Josh Williams
ROBERT SHALLOW, a country justice – Brendan Murray
SLENDER, Shallow’s cousin and suitor of Anne Page – Alex Mungo
FENTON, gentleman and suitor of Anne Page – Harry Denby
DOCTOR CAIUS, suitor of Anne Page – Elijah Williams
MISTRESS QUICKLY, Caius’s Housekeeper – Holly Gibbs
PISTOL, Falstaff’s follower – Elijah Williams
BARDOLPH, Falstaff’s follower – Harry Denby
NYM, Falstaff’s follower- Josh Williams
PETER SIMPLE, Slender’s servant- James McClam
MUSICIAN – Corey Ahearn

Production Manager – Sarah Curnoles
Stage Manager – Lauren Engler
Technical Director – Dan O’Brien
Set Design, Lighting Design, Costume Designer – Becca Janney
Sound Design – Aria Velz
Music Director – Grace Srinivasan
Props Artisan – Nikki LeFaye
Composer – Sam Saint Ours
Assistant Stage Manager – Colin Maher
Production Assistant – Oriana Montes
Dance Choreographer – Shaela Davis
Fight Director/ Intimacy Director – Sierra Young
Dialect/Text/Vocal Coach – Teresa Spencer
Tech Manager – Cameron Luther
Wardrobe – Hannah Brill
Senior House Manager – Pamela Forton
Covid Safety Officer – Mandy Benedix
House Managers – Stacey Morrison, Ashley Sigmon, Lisa Waddington, Ann Marie Brokmeier, Mia Boydston

Dylan Arredondo, Richard Buchanan, Lauren Engler, James McClam, Keegan Cassady, Vanessa Strickland


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