Theater review: A mountain of merriment

Ashland High School Performing Arts' presentation of Shakespeare's "The Merry Wives of Windsor" at its Mountain Avenue Theatre is sprightly entertainment.

I've always thought of this farce as "Falstaff's Folly" — that it never occurs to the normally astute and witty knight that soliciting a couple of respectable, middle-class, married ladies to relieve his impecunious state is doomed to disaster. For Mistress Ford and Mistress Page, who hold the family purse strings, compare the identical wording of the missive from Falstaff each has received and plan his comeuppance, meting out their own brand of salutary British justice.

If ever a man suffered, consider Falstaff's plight; he is hidden in a dirty linen basket, dumped in the Thames, disguised as a woman and beaten, and lured to a midnight pageant in Windsor Park as Herne's hunter swearing a buck's antler, only to be pinched and prodded mercilessly by fairies. Talk about wild!

It is fortunate that Ashland High School is able to draw on the expertise of the Oregon Shakepspeare Festival. Thus, here the cast of 31 young thespians is under the brisk and lively direction of Tyrone Wilson, who has just completed his 14th season with OSF and himself played Pistol in OSF's 2001 "Merry Wives" production. AHS's lighting is in the hands of OSF's Phil Shaw and the music is by Todd Barton, OSF's resident composer since 1969.

As for the setting, no foreign field is required. Shakespeare is on his home turf, as it were — houses in the Berkshire village of Windsor, some 20 miles from London, the notorious Garter Inn and the great park itself. All this is captured in Doug Ham's artful set.

So beguiled was Elizabeth I by the character of Sir John Falstaff in Shakespeare's "Henry IV" (Parts I and II) that she commanded the playwright to pen a third play depicting Sir John in love and gave him 15 days to write it (he did so in six!). There are some scholars and critics who look askance at the belittlement of the character of Falstaff, though even the knight himself toward the end of "Merry Wives" says, "I do begin to perceive that I am made an ass."

In the cast — the opening speeches struck me as a shade too hurried — I enjoyed Mistress Ford (Emma Harding) and Mistress Page (Clementine von Radics), the charming conspirators with their ritual touch of fingers. Tay Smith as the intensely jealous Master Ford is a delight with his black mustache disguise as he impersonates Master Broom and pays Falstaff to seduce his wife. Oh, such howls of anguish. As Sir John Falstaff, Ford Murawski-Brown has a fat role and plays it for all its worth. He has an excellent stage presence. I warmed to Slender, the endearing booby of Uriel Wolfe-Blank, who would be no match for young Anne Page, the daughter (Rosalie Alspach).

The costumes by Emily Ehrlich-Inget are exceptional. It's not just their colorfulness, but the combination of pantaloons and knee-high boots and particularly the millinery marvels. Hats off to her!

Perhaps the highlight of the proceedings is the scene in the park in which Doug Ham uses a forest backdrop to enhance Audrey Flint's choreography. The eerie, wispy figures swirling around the prone Falstaff impress deeply.

The running time of the show is two-and-a-half hours, with a 10-minute intermission. Performances are at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, with a matinee at 2 p.m. on Sunday. Call 482-8771.

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