Reviewed by Judy Richter
At first glance, using puppets as extensively as director Sean Daniels does in "The Merry Wives of Windsor" seems gimmicky. However, the program for the opening production of California Shakespeare Theater's 2006 season points out that the Puritans considered puppetry a low art form, not theater. Therefore, when they closed London's theaters in 1642, puppets were the only way that William Shakespeare's plays could be performed legally. Hence, the CST production may be seen as right in keeping with early Shakespearean tradition. Nevertheless, it take some getting used to, which happens as the play progresses.
All but four of the characters are shown as puppets. The exceptions are Mistress Page (Catherine Castellanos), Mistress Ford (Delia MacDougall), Master Ford (Anthony Fusco) and Master Page (Liam Vincent). The play flows much more smoothly when these four are involved. Their handsome costumes, designed by Lydia Tanjii, are inspired by the 16th century period in which the play was written.
Lead puppet designer Jon Ludwig and his colleagues, Chris Brown and Jason Hines, use a variety of puppet types and sizes for the other characters. Their designs tend toward the cartoonish, an approach amplified by Dave Malloy's music and sound design, which seems to come straight from a B-movie -- a winning concept. Likewise, Scott Bradley's simple set has some cartoon-like qualities.Lighting is by Russell H. Champa.
The puppets usually are carried and manipulated by the actors who speak the characters' lines and who are clad all in black, including the veils over their faces. The major exception is Falstaff, played by Ron Campbell. The fat, lecherous knight is represented by a puppet that's nearly 9 feet tall and 5 feet wide. Campbell works this puppet from the inside, not showing anything of himself until the curtain call. Sometimes others help manipulate the various puppets, including Falstaff.
Campbell's melodic voice adds depth to Falstaff. Castellanos and MacDougall have fun as the two wives work up schemes to thwart Falstaff, who has tried to woo them both. Fusco's Ford goes into spasms of jealousy, while Vincent's Page is much calmer. Lorna Howley struts along with her Mistress Quickly puppet in abetting the schemes of whoever pays her. Max Moore does double duty as Slender and Fenton, both suitors to Anne Page. She's played by Geoff Uterhardt, who also portrays Hugh Evans and Rugby. Likewise, Danny Scheie shifts between Pitsol, Falstaff's cohort, and Dr. Caius, the French doctor who's the third suitor to Anne Page. Spencer Stephens takes on the roles of Justice Shallow, Simple and Robin, while Juliet Strong completes the cast as Robert.
Once the audience and actors get settled into how the play works, it works well, aided in large measure by the actors' skill, along with Daniels' clever direction.