It is approaching 7 p.m. on Aug. 19, a Friday evening. After several days of heat, we are finally getting a cool breeze. I have arrived at Wright Park and the breeze is blowing through the leaves of the giant, old trees. I am carrying a lawn chair that I can sit in for the performance of tonight’s Shakespeare in the Park show, a one-night-only presentation of “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” which is produced by the Seattle Shakespeare Company’s Wooden O.
For the past 25 years Wooden O has been sending troupes of Shakespearian actors to municipal parks all over the Puget Sound region to act in these Shakespeare in the Park performances. Each summer, two plays are selected and the travelling group makes its rounds. This year, some locations were visited by performances of “King Lear,” while others – like Tacoma – were host to the company’s production of “The Merry Wives of Windsor.”
As I arrive on the scene, in the gentle hollow situated between Wright Park’s pond and the hill that is surmounted by the conservatory, I see that a crowd has already gathered in front of the performance area. There is no stage, just a colorful backdrop: a wall painted in florescent colors and punctuated with little windows and doors that the actors use for entry and exit and for making staccato appearances. It brings to mind the wall from the 1960s-television comedy show “Laugh In” and functions the same way.
The action for the play takes place on the grassy area in front of this wall. I find a spot off on the side slope, near the gravel path that goes by the pond. I unfold my chair and have a seat. Soon the performance begins.
“The Merry Wives of Windsor” is a comedy featuring Sir John Falstaff (here played by Charles Leggett), the rotund rogue who is featured in several of Shakespeare’s plays. In this story, Falstaff is the butt of much of the humor as he tries to seduce two of the wealthy women of Windsor, Mistress Ford (Annie Lareau) and Mistress Page (Eleanor Moseley). The two women take revenge on Falstaff for his presumptions by leading him on and making a fool of him. Once he is put in a laundry basket and dumped into the Thames. After that, he is dressed as a witch and beaten. Finally, he is dressed as a creature of the forest – complete with antlers – and is accosted by elves and fairies. Woven into the story is a sub plot of Anne Page (Stephanie Neuerburg,) Mistress Page’s daughter, navigating among a trio of suitors who are trying to win her hand in marriage and gain access to her substantial inheritance.
The show unfolds. Members of the audience are quickly captivated by the story. The costumes for this production match the funky back drop: go-go boots, miniskirts, plaid pants, florescent colors. Interludes between scenes feature the cast members doing mod, wild dances to music from the 1960s. It is all very retro-psychedelic.
The actors are mic’d, yet it is difficult at times to catch every word of dialogue. Fortunately, the actors use expressive body language to augment their lines, making it easy to follow the story. (It helped that I refreshed my memory of the story and characters beforehand by going over a synopsis of the play.) Despite my inability to catch everything, I find myself engrossed in the play. The actors are uniformly great, especially Lareau as Mistress Ford, Leggett as Falstaff and Lamar Lewis as Slender, one of the would-be suitors of Anne Page. Lewis exudes good natured humor as he portrays Slender here is as a Gay character who has been persuaded to woo Anne for her inheritance.
Leggett’s version of Falstaff is fascinating. He ambles about in a blue plaid suit (later a suit with a Union Jack motif), playing a bluesy harmonica and delighting in his own girth and propensity to drink and to scheme. At one point, he lifts his shirt to show off his impressive paunch, slapping his hairy belly with pride.
As the sun sets, the breeze becomes even cooler. Many in the audience dressed themselves for a hot night and they now begin to wrap up in the edges of the blankets that they are seated on. Nevertheless, everyone is too engrossed in the comedy to leave. As the light fades, a couple of portable spotlights are employed to keep the stage area lit.
Wright Park becomes a magical setting for the final, fairy-land scene in which the antler-wearing Falstaff cavorts with hooded figures in dance-like configurations. There is nothing like open air theater. The experience goes all the way back to ancient Greece. Something deep in the subconscious seems to stir.
Finally, the story is brought to a conclusion. Falstaff is chastened and reconciled with the group. Marriages hold firm. The young lovers win each other. Nobody dies. The actors are now out to receive the applause of the appreciative audience.
I am impressed by the size of the crowd. But now the sun has set and it is time to go. I fold up my chair and make my way through the park to where I’d parked my truck. This has been one of the best experiences with Shakespeare that I’ve had. The actors were fluid in Elizabethan English and have an obvious enthusiasm for the material. The audience fed off that enthusiasm on the part of the actors as much as the entertainment of the story and the inventive costumes and set. Feeling happy to have watched this performance, I make my way home.
We are fortunate to live in a city where cultural events like this are made available with such ease to members of the public. Metro Parks Tacoma and the Seattle Shakespeare Company are much appreciated for providing life-enriching moments such as this. I’ll be here again next year.
For more on the Shakespeare in the Park series and Seattle Shakespeare Company, visit www.seattleshakespeare.org/woodeno.