Everyone's a Critic
The Observer's culture blogMonday, June 11, 2012
IT'S A BIRD, IT'S A PLANE, IT'S THE BARD, by Sally Mitani
This is the twelfth year Kate Mendeloff has produced Shakespeare in the Arb. She stages scenes in different parts of the park, moving the audience around several times during the evening with strolling musicians leading the way. Ringed in primeval-looking trees, the magnificent Arb is an astonishing setting for plays that have a forest in them, as a lot of Shakespeare's plays do. There have been years in the past when I've felt myself gasp as a tree, a hill, a horizon, or a sunset magically fused itself to the action in a way that simply could not occur on an indoor stage.
The 2012 production, Merry Wives of Windsor, runs Thursday-Sunday through June 24 (see Events, at left). Unfortunately it does not--except for the very last scene--involve natural settings. It's a play about urban society, wealth, leisure, and the kind of mischief-making that rich people get up to when they've got nothing better to do. So the Arb here doesn't provide much more than a really fun place to be. The prize for this year's best make-use-of-nature scene would have to go to Falstaff making an exit by parting a hanging curtain of willow branches, but here he's just exiting a pub. It's very cleverly done, but it doesn't have the power of those scenes where nature gets to play itself.
I don't mean this as harsh criticism, because my baseline feeling about Shakespeare in the Arb is that if you pick a still, warm evening, and bring the right snacks and companions (or lack of them, if that's the mood you're in), there is no better way to spend a night in June.
A couple of young girls seeing their first Shakespeare play sat behind me at the opening of Act I, scene 1, and I heard them whisper that they didn't understand what was going on. Well they shouldn't have worried--neither did I. Merry Wives begins like most Shakespeare plays, with one of those "Fie, prithee, well met" conversations between minor characters. In fact, I've rarely seen a Shakespeare play that I didn't spend the first half of it wondering who those guys were and what were they talking about--later it makes sense, if you care to loop back and think about it.
Anyway, once the main story got going, Martin Walsh playing Falstaff went a good way toward alleviating my disappointment that Merry Wives didn't work better in a woodland setting. Walsh wears the big, showboating role well, and he makes the lines sing too. Falstaff is a shameless, waggish old goat, who has the misfortune to trifle with two of Windsor's smartest, funniest matrons. Imagine Henry Kissinger writing mash notes to Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama as if they were a couple of Playboy Bunnies, and you get the idea.
The acting is uneven; some fresh and wonderful, some wooden and stumbling. Sometimes you can't hear what's going on. Not every actor projects well. A train went by, a helicopter buzzed overhead, and--one of the pleasantest distractions to a theatre experience ever--a bird sitting on a sapling looked over the audience and warbled loudly through an entire scene. All of this is more than counterbalanced by the pleasure being in the Arb on a June night in this universe, rather than in some impoverished alternate reality in which Shakespeare never existed.
A big, big thank you to Kate Mendeloff for creating and continuing this tradition.
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