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"Comical Gallant" returns after 300-year nap

John Dennis’ script “The Comical Gallant” hasn’t been performed on stage since 1709. Now, more than 300 years later, it will come to life again at the Venetian Theatre in Hillsboro — but this time with a twist.by: COURTESY PHOTO: CASEY CAMPBELL - John Falstaff (Gary Strong) enjoys the antics of Anne Page (Arianne Jacques), Mistress Ford (Megan Carver) and Mistress Page (Cassie Greer) when Bag&Baggage performs an updated version of Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor comedy in Hillsboro.

“We are doing it in the style of a black and white 1950s television sitcom,” says director Scott Palmer, who has laced Dennis’ script —itself an adaptation of Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor” —with live-action jingles, Mad Men-inspired decor, and sharp 1950s-style costumes. To top it all off, the entire production will be done in grayscale, with everything from the makeup to the props designed to mimic the look of black and white television.

“The text itself has a lot of this whittling down of layers and getting to the singular focus of the characters,” said Cassie Greer, who will be playing Mistress Page. “And Scott discovered that corresponded really well with the whole acting approach of 1950s television.”

That approach is simpler than the more “psychological” acting training performers receive today, Greer said.

“It’s soft characters, it’s physical comedy,” she said. “It’s big, it’s a little bit brash, but also a lot of fun.”

The amalgam of Shakespeare, Dennis, and Palmer-infused theater culminates in the lengthy title: “The Merry Wives of Windsor, or the Amorous Adventures of the Comical Knight Sir John Falstaff.”

Though the action of the play is set in mid-20th century Manhattan, the bones of Shakespeare’s original plot remain intact. Anne Page, daughter of the influential Master and Mistress Page, is in love with Mr. Fenton. Her parents, however, have other plans for Anne, each wishing for her to marry a different suitor. Anne calls on the title character, Sir John Falstaff, to help create a series of diversions, and hilarity ensues.

The show pays homage to “not only the stylistic time period, but also a very particular time in media history,” said set designer Megan Wilkerson. Just as Dennis’ adaptation reflected his Restoration-era sensibilities, so does the monumental shift from radio-based entertainment to television in the 1950s.

Palmer believes that those early years of television paralleled the work of 18th Century dramatists like Dennis, who appropriated “a previous era’s entertainment for use in a new time, and altered it for new artistic sensibilities,” much like adapting Shakespeare.

Gary Strong, who plays Falstaff, has enjoyed the process of developing his character in the context of 1950s-style acting.

“Right off the bat I took him to be a braggart with an ego that would not quit. He is very confident in himself and his actions, and it shows in each step,” he says. “The ’50s performance style helps with this physicality. Every movement is fluid, specific and slightly elongated.”

Strong has reveled in researching the golden age of television in preparation for the show, and, along with the rest of the cast, has been studying classics like The Jack Benny Show, The Honeymooners, and I Love Lucy to enrich his performance.

Inspired by early screen actors who cultivated a signature move, Strong has come up with his own for Falstaff. “I decided that his incredible ego needed a walk to match it, so I made his signature move a prance,” he says.

Palmer’s theater company, Bag & Baggage, has built a reputation for its provocative, playful takes on classic scripts. In fact, the troupe has made such a strong impression on audiences that the city of Hillsboro awarded the company a $30,000 grant to put toward its productions in 2013.

“Scott grew up in Hillsboro and has very deliberately decided to keep this company in Hillsboro,” said Greer. Although Portland holds bigger audiences and a wealth of actors, it’s important to Palmer to keep his own exuberant take on theater in his hometown.

“Theater is not just something that you go and sit in the audience and watch and are removed from,” added Greer. “It’s really interactive. There are real people right in front of you, and that’s a living, breathing exchange.”




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