Bag&Baggage hits with contemporary adaptation of Merry Wives of Windsor

Director Scott Palmer’s contemporary adaptation of William Shakespeare’s comedy, “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” celebrates not only the genius of Shakespeare but also the creativity of early television COURTESY PHOTO: CASEY CAMPBELL - Cassie Greer plays the role of Mistress Page in the Bag&Baggage production of The Merry Wives of Windsor, which continues at Hillsboros Venetian Theatre through March 24.

The essence of the story revolves around the efforts of three suitors to win the hand of the beautiful Miss Anne Page, and how a clever trap is set for two of these men.

Palmer's version is his take on Restoration-era John Dennis' adaptation of Shakespeare's play. Much has changed from Shakespeare's original "Merry Wives," but the clever essence of Shakespeare's comic vision remains.

In fact, the play — performed at Hillsboro's classy Venetian Theatre by the Bag&Baggage professional theater company — is a deft blend of Shakespearean wit and some of the best elements of American television programming from the late 1950s, a time when iconic celebrities such as Jackie Gleason, Ed Sullivan, Rod Serling and George Burns were setting the trends in America's “Golden Age” of television.

It was a grand stroke to bring a Shakespearean set into a more contemporary setting (although most of us probably don’t think of the 1950s-60s as “contemporary” any longer). The stage in “Merry Wives” is constructed as if it were a television set — a black-and-white television set. The characters all dress in monochromatic colors — gray, black, white — and the desks and file cabinets are also black or gray. The performers even wear white makeup to heighten the sense that you are watching a black-and-white television show. Yet throughout, the language and the voice is pure, rich Shakespeare.

Especially humorous is the way characters insert the “show’s” advertisers into the dialogue, an early television trick. Rather than ask someone if they want a cigarette, for example, the question becomes: “Would you like an Old Gold menthol cigarette?”

Anyone remember that quirk from television's early days?

Speaking of Jackie Gleason, the wonderful performance of Gary Strong — who plays the lead role of Falstaff — at times recalls Gleason’s boisterous ways and animated gestures. Strong and Arianne Jacques, who plays Miss Anne Page, turn in especially entertaining performances, but the entire production is polished and sharp.

In his explanation of why he chose to bring Shakespeare into the television era, director Palmer, a Hillsboro native, explained that he believes art “is a process of re-appropriating characters, narratives, styles and plots from one generation, one culture, one time, one medium to the next.”

Palmer, the founding artistic director of the innovative Bag&Baggage theater company, has wildly succeeded in making his vision a reality.

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