When thinking of great feminist playwrights, William Shakespeare likely doesn’t come to mind. Despite this, his famed play The Merry Wives of Windsor is a comedy featuring smart and powerful women. The text was originally published in the 1600s, but the play’s strong heroines and themes of love, money and deception are so universal that it, like a number of Shakespeare’s other works, can be set in any time period. Need proof? For its final production of the 2019/2020 season, Folger Theatre is set to stage The Merry Wives of Windsor with a backdrop of the groovy 1970s.
As part of his research, director Aaron Posner used his own memories from living in the decade, as well as listening to some of the top hits and revisiting family sitcoms like The Brandy Brunch. While the script easily lends itself to the comedic stylings of 70s sitcoms, it was actually Posner’s mother that inspired the vintage aesthetic.
“[I was] talking about my mom who was a housewife in the 1970s as Mistress Ford and Mistress Page are in the play [and] talking about her in relation to the play was one of the things that landed us on the 1970s,” he says. “We’re really enjoying steeping the whole thing in the energy of the 1970s, which really fits the play very well. These merry wives are stepping up into their own power and choosing to take matters into their own hands. It fits the rebellious and fresh spirit, where new things are possible.”
In The Merry Wives of Windsor, Mistress Ford and Mistress Page plot against the villainous Sir John Falstaff as he attempts to seduce them for their husband’s wealth.They prove they are not to be trifled with by hilariously thwarting Falstaff’s plan. All the while, Mistress Page’s daughter Anne Page, is being pursued by three suitors, wherein she shuts down two, while angling to marry her true love.
Shakespeare was far ahead of his time when writing females characters, despite the fact that women weren’t permitted to act on English stages until the 1660s. Mistress Ford and Mistress Page are not one-dimensional characters who are written to advance a male character’s storyline. Rather, they have their own unique arcs. Part of what draws Posner to The Bard’s work is his ability to write deep and complex characters of both genders.
“In a number of his plays, the smartest, most aware, most clear-sighted people in the plays are the women,” Posner says. “I would say he’s a humanist more than a feminist, certainly because he will share the best and worst of all people. It does feel very contemporary in the way [the female characters] respond to what they take as an affront. They don’t withdraw, they don’t run to their husbands.”
This is Posner’s 21st production with the company, but this play holds a special place in his heart as he portrayed Falstaff in his eighth-grade production. He notes that this production is one of Shakespeare’s more accessible plays.
“If I am evangelical about anything in the world, it’s that Shakespeare is accessible to everyone when done well. I try to make sure that while I hope Shakespeare scholars will enjoy the shows, I always feel that if a relatively intelligent 12-year-old can’t follow the play, moment for moment, then I haven’t done my job well. [The Merry Wives of Windsor] holds a lot of delight for anyone because it’s mostly in prose and not poetry, the language is rich but not dense. The plot is easy to follow. This is a perfect gateway drug to Shakespeare.”
To go along with the show’s Girl Power theme, the theater is hosting Folger Friday: Hysterical Women on January 31. This program will feature DC female comedians, including Washington Improv Theater’s all-female identifying ensemble Hellcat, and performers Elahe Izadi and Kasha Patel.
The Merry Wives of Windsor will be the final production staged in the historic Folger Theatre space before the Folger Shakespeare Library’s multi-year renovation. During the construction, Folger Theatre will be offsite at various DC theaters.
The Merry Wives of Windsor is on stage from January 14 through March 1. Tickets are available online.
Folger Theatre: 201 East Capitol St. SE, DC; 202-544-7077; www.folger.edu