STRATFORD, ON—The Merry Wives of Windsor is an exercise in controlled chaos. Jam-packed with a cast of parsons, physicians, gentleman, and mistresses (rather than ladies), the stage explodes with personalities of all types. At the center of this chaos are the mischievous Mistresses Alice Ford (Sophia Walker) and Anne Page (Brigit Wilson), who have decided to punish the would-be Lothario Sir John Falstaff (Geraint Wyn Davies) for, among other things, his laziness. In his attempts to seduce both, he sends more or less the same letter to each. “I warrant he hath a thousand of these,” Page says to Ford, “writ with blank space for different names.”
Where the current production at the Stratford Festival fails is in its control over the chaos. Because Merry Wives is a carnival in everything but name, its director and actors must be mercilessly precise in the decisions they make about movement and performance. With one exception, director Antoni Cimolino cannot keep up the pace, and for the most part his actors founder in a kind of sluggish mania. The exception is the first bedroom scene, where Falstaff must hide in a laundry basket to avoid detection by Ford’s husband (Graham Abbey). I suspect that because the scene demands tight choreography, movement director Valerie Moore has supplied it, and for a short while the physical comedy onstage is quick and light and wonderful.
There are admittedly a few other touches to admire here: designer Julie Fox has created a charming Tudor-style set to match the Tudor-style architecture of Stratford itself, and a recurring gag where Falstaff has to be rolled on and off furniture through a kind of push-and-pull system is rather funny. Still, under loose and baggy direction, this Merry Wives doesn’t quite live up to its potential.