by Jack Shaw

The Dead Playwrights Repertory, a new theatre group that began its inaugural season with “The Battle of the Sexes” in Haddonfield, NJ began for me with Shakespeare’s THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR. It was silly at times. A little over-the-top at times, but filled with some excellent and energetic performances. The group has a background in the classic approach and it shows.

Jenn Vick and Carol Schwab in THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR, running in repertory Haddonfield NJ through October 23.

Don’t get me wrong: the Dead Playwrights Repertory knows how to have a good time and share it with an audience. We were not only entertained during the show itself, but also during the pre-show and two intermissions with a floor show, which was a nice touch. The audience was limited and so it was Shakespeare in a rather intimate setting, which doesn’t happen very often.

This is actually part of a double bill called “The Battle of the Sexes”–two shows done in repertory. This one, THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR and Aristophanes’ LYSISTRATA.

Although MERRY WIVES was a little like Petticoat Junction on steroids without the train, this was truly the most creative production I have ever seen of one of Shakespeare’s comedies. Even though it may have overstepped some staid and established literary boundaries, it engaged and entertained the audience. Whether it enhanced the Bard’s words and meanings remains to be seen. The audience certainly understood what was going on and it made sense setting this play in Virginia during the Civil War. Shakespeare dialogue works pretty well with the southern dialect (and the Welsh dialect for the priest) and maintains a similar social structure for the play’s commentary on society. If anything, I think the nuances that characterize the Bard’s comedies may have been lost, taken up with slapstick and caricature. But that’s just me.

This may be one of those if-you’re-a-purist don’t go, but if you are open to a new perspective, why not? I enjoyed it. I felt a little guilty knowing some of the “greatness” was buried in shtick, but then again, the playwright is dead. And, this is the Dead Playwrights Repertory. If it’s wrong, I’m sure they won’t make a habit of it. Keep in mind that the production is delightful at times, and at times seems a bit overwrought, but I think the “overwrought” may be Shakespeare’s fault; he does draw out a speech now and then. Note: That is because Shakespeare’s comedies are not intended to be physical, but rather verbal comedies. Shakespeare repeats information through a character telling another character what has just happened. Imagine being a “groundling” and having to stand the entire length of the play. You might leave and come back, and so the technique served the purpose of keeping the audience up-to-date.

One thing is sure. While this may have been a creative vision violating the classic Shakespeare we expect to see most often, we shouldn’t be too alarmed. In theatre, you have to take a chance every now and then to give old classics like this one a freshness. Did I actually say that? I should say this is not one of Shakespeare’s comedies that you see performed very often. I suspect it has a lot to do with making it accessible to modern audiences. The fact that this is a play that is presumed to have been created in a hurry and not necessarily one of his best by the critics, it is perhaps best suited to take liberties with to make it shine.

One of my favorite comedies is a San Francisco Repertory Theatre production of TAMING OF THE SHREW that starred Marc Singer, and used the Commedia dell’arte style, a more physical style of theatre, using caricatures and improvisation. So, not that far removed from this production of MERRY WIVES. It’s still Petticoat Junction and William Shakespeare, but with hoops instead of petticoats…

Director Douglas Overtoom took some risks with this production and should be commended for taking them. He assembled a fine group of actors–some were stronger than others in the classic presentation, but all were solid performers. DPR made what appears to be an easily accessible and entertaining production. So, if you’re looking for an easy introduction to Shakespeare, this is it. THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR–Windsor, Virginia, that is. You’ll enjoy it and not even feel like you’re getting Shakespeare unless you stop to think about it. C’mon take a chance…

By William Shakespeare
By Aristophanes
Both Directed by Douglas Overtoom
October 7-23, 2011
For tickets, contact:
Carol Schwab
Dead Playwrights Repertory

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