Sequels and spin-offs seem to be the mode of movies and TV productions today. If a concept brings in the revenue, make another or six follow up episodes… where is the Star Wars saga… up to filming the 7th movie 35 years later? When a TV sit-com decides to wrap up the final seasons (aka used up all the good ideas with that group of characters), how often does one or two of those characters show up next season with their own pilot episodes? Serious playwrights don’t engage in such mone-mining scripts do they? Take Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, the spin-off from Henry IV, part 2 , the sequel to Henry IV, part 1.
The American Shakespeare Center at the Blackfriar Theatre, in Staunton, VA has just finished their World’s Mine Oyster tour with a production of The Merry Wives of Windsor. The legend goes that Queen Elizabeth liked the character of Falstaff from Henry IV, parts 1 and 2, that she asked Shakespeare to write another play featuring Falstaff. Shakespeare rarely passed up a chance to add some coin to his pockets and his company’s coffers. Movie and TV productions companies are about the same today.
Rather than setting Falstaff, the portly, intoxicating knight, in the midst of evading battles, Shakespeare lets him loose in middle-class town. He spends time in taverns, but mostly schemes on how to extract the ladies’ purses by pretending to woe them. His assumption is that their preoccupied and jealous husbands are too busy protecting their wive’s chastity to fulfill their desire. The wives of course are more cunning, and when they compare their notes to deduce Falstaff’s plot, they play him the fool by pretending to recipricate his false ovetures. Crosses and double cross, with a variety of side-kicks and sub-plots, finally expose the rouge and ruse. The husbands and wives are reconciled, Falstaff returns to the tavern, and the true lovers of the play, Anne Page and Fenton, are united.
Sequels and spin-offs may be financial security for the lead actors who show up in multiple productions. But, the the known story-lines become training grounds for new or less known actors, who fill in rolls as they are added to the larger plot structure. The touring company for the American Shakespeare Center is a combination of seasoned actors and new talents. Each year several of the positions appear to be filled by recently graduated students who will be involved in the company for the months on the road, and then the spring season at the Blackfriar Theatre.
From their bio’s Russell Daniels (MFA University of Houston Professional Theatre Training Program) and Joey Ibanez (Bristol Old Vic Theatre School) appear to be newer actors. Each has two roles in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Daniels plays the Host of the Garter Inn; and Mistress Quickly, the housekeeper for Doctor Caius, who is trying to court Anne Page. Ibanez plays Robert Shallow, a justice of the peace and friend of Abraham Slender, who is also being pushed to take Anne Page’s hand in marriage to secure her dowery; and, Fenton, a third suiter, and Anne’s true love.
Casting multiple roles and cross gender roles were common practices for Shakespeare’s troupe. The American Shakespeare Center productions use this for historic and comic affect. Daniels’ two roles are both earthy, working class characters. While, obviously, never on the stage at the stage at the same time, they serve a similar function of creating situations for jokes and increasing the frantic energy of the play. Ibanez has contrasting roles, as Shallow is the older, calculating judge who is less interested in justice than arranging a contract, while Fenton is trying to break the contracts that Master and Mistress Page have made for their daughter.
Daniels uses physical humor to accent his verbal jokes, which are often mispronounced words and mis-timed proclamations. His roles also create a foundation on which Falstaff can make bigger gestures and more ludicrous pronouncements. Daniels carries a large build, which further accentuates Falstaff’s larger role, and waist-line in the play. In fact, if Falstaff where looking for an equal, rather than pandering to fill his pockets, Daniels’ Mistress Quickly might be able to take him for five rounds (acts, boxing, or drinks).
Ibanez uses more contrast for his characters. While he does not change his size for Shallow, his costume, posture and voice show this character to be smaller than his position. Ibanez’s Fenton has a job to have a presence on this stage full of big-ego’s. The Fenton-Anne Page romance is a sub-plot lost among the crossing and double-crossing of all the other characters. Their eventual union seems to just round out the comic structure, after all the non-cuckolding sexually teasing exploits.
Fenton and Anne give us some hope that romance is possible, even though the sit-com aspects are a lot funnier. Ibanez must shift his roles from scene to scene, being shallow and sincere within minute of each other. Daniels must keep up a jovality from entrance to exit. A couple of times he stepped out one door in one costume and stepped back on stage seconds later in his other costume.
These are skills the young actors should develop. In most productions they will join, they will be portraying one character for six to eight weeks, moving to a new city, and stepping on stage as someone else, repeating the process for as many shows they can be in.