Doubtless this all seemed sensational enough in 1959 to dwarf the play’s theme of the ruthless ravages of time. Williams being Williams, there are some poetic speeches strewn amid the sexual power-brokering and yelps from “the out-crying heart of an artist.” But reverentially reproduced, right down to the three acts and two intermissions, Sweet Bird is as lumbering as it is lurid or lyrical, with too much repetitive stage time for dissipated “monsters” Chance and del Lago and not enough for courtly, bullying Boss Finley — no Big Daddy but also no slouch. Indeed, the production comes to vivid life in a second act dominated by the excellent Gerry Bamman as God-fearing, hate-mongering, promiscuous proselytizer Finley, a polished-hillbilly evangelizer against desegregation. And in the role created by the young Rip Torn, that of Tom Finley Jr., Christopher Evan Welch proves similarly effective, combining lily-livered subjugation to the father with credible intimidation of everyone else. This is a compelling revival of a sloppy if iconic drama that deserves another Chance.
Down Route 7 from St. Cloud is another town without pity, the Elizabethan burg of Windsor, to which Shakespeare removed his fat force of nature, Sir John Falstaff, ostensibly when Queen Elizabeth requested to see the disreputable heart of the Henriad in love. At Shakespeare & Company, director Tony Simotes rightly makes the bustling bourgeois community a character in his production. (Critic Marjorie Garber calls Wives a “citizen comedy.”) The staging retains the play’s Elizabethan setting while running it through various comic wringers from commedia to Keystone Kops to Victorian melodrama, always with Scott Killian’s snappy, harpsichord-driven score to shoo it along. At the preview I saw, the comedy was slow getting off the ground, partly because the early action, including much ethnic-linguistic lampooning of characters both Welsh and French, was probably more sidesplitting to an English audience of 1597 than it is to us. And the actors seemed bent on heavy-lifting the opus into the air. But once aloft, the play flew, offering a second act more buoyant and less forced than the first.
Svelte Malcolm Ingram is not a natural choice for the “gross pumpkin” who decides he’s Brad Pitt to a couple of married women, but encased in a fat suit worthy of Gwyneth Paltrow in Shallow Hal he looks like a beribboned blimp, and the nimble actor handles the fake girth, affecting a wide-legged stride, rotating his hips like Elvis, and heaving himself up and down less like a tugboat than like Titanic. Moreover, his rogue is so amiable that you pity him his multiple sadomasochistic comeuppances, which culminate in a veritable masque by Herne’s Oak that, with its whispery-white fairies, is reminiscent of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR: Through the wife’s boudoir to the husband’s coffer?
As the women who prove “wives may be merry, and yet honest too,” Elizabeth Aspenlieder is a ditzy, effervescent Mistress Ford to Corinna May’s shrewder Mistress Page; the scenes in which they extract pre-written scenarios from their bosoms and enact exaggerated scenarios to entrap the greasy knight are amusing. And Michael Hammond, if he pulls off one too many cape-snarling flourishes in his disguise as Brook, brings a credible fury to jealous husband Ford. The Slender of Dave Demke, wobbling in his affected poses, seems more gay than idiotic, and Jonathan Croy’s explosive Dr. Caius, in a voluminous cartoon costume by Arthur Oliver, looks almost as ridiculous as Falstaff. But in the manner of Elizabethan entertainments, there is a sweet scene for Anne Page (“On Paj” to the French Caius) and her chosen suitor, Fenton, that includes a ditty affectingly sung by Katie Zaffrann and Ryan Winkles.