“I shall ensconce myself on the … lanai.” Slipstream Theatre’s Merry Wives of Windsor … er …Miami

Originally published by Encore Michigan here.

[Image Courtesy Slipstream]

“Thank you for bein’ a frieeeee-eeeeehnd” goes the familiar refrain from the theme song to the ever increasingly ubiquitous Golden Girls. If you had told my 8th grade self, watching these grande dames of stage and (small) screen – who, back in the mid-1980s, were enjoying a third, nay fourth, act career resurgence – that they would be as relevant and beloved 30 years later with reruns airing around the clock, their own action figures, an empire of nostalgic collectibles, and even a LEGO set, I would have scoffed. Scoffed, I sayeth!

NOW, if further you had told my pretentious, Shakespeare-loving college self that one day a sharp and irreverent Metro Detroit theatre collective would leverage Falstaff-focused comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor as a vehicle to celebrate all things Dorothy, Rose, Blanche, Sophia, Stanley, and, well, cheesecake, I would have been dumbfounded (and mildly intrigued).

Picture it. Columbus. 1997.

(In all transparency, I played jealous hubby Master Ford in a production of Merry Wives at Ohio State in 1997 that was inspired by P.G. Wodehouse. Like I said: pretentious. I know no one asked, but I volunteered that info anyway.)

Picture it. Ferndale. 2019. Director (and founder) Bailey Boudreau has delivered a light summer soufflé with just the right pinch of zeitgeist in Slipstream’s newest production Merry Wives of Windsor Miami. If you want to escape the summer heat with a blessedly breezy 70 (!) minute lark that is as much arch sitcom as pithy Bard, don’t miss this show.

People can be far too reverential where Shakespeare is concerned; we don’t need three hours, carefully curating every side character and extraneous subplot. Shakespeare was the Netflix of his day – populist entertainment – and Boudreau and his company wisely realize that playing fast and loose with the material, while miraculously preserving the language and major plot points with only the most minor (and witty) of winking contemporary adds, wins the day.

The only downside to Boudreau’s approach is that the very structure of Merry Wives prevents the audience from witnessing the Wives/Girls all assembled for a skosh too long. As the play opens, there are more than a few intertwining subplots:

  • Young suitors pursuing Ms. Anne Page (a pitch perfect Luna Alexander expertly channeling Rue McClanahan as Southern-fried Blanche Devereaux)
  • A money hungry intermediary Mistress Quickly (Linda Rabin Hammell having the time of her life as Estelle Getty as impish Sophia Petrillo)
  • A pair of identical letters written to happily married Mistress Ford (a happy-go-lucky Mandy Logsdon as Betty White as daffy Rose Nylynd) and Mistress Page (ever-poised Jan Cartwright as Bea Arthur as queen bee Dorothy Zbornak) by lecherous Sir John Falstaff (a spot on Patrick O’Lear with a lovely zest of nuanced camp as Herb Edelman as oafish Stanley Zbornak). BTW, Falstaff was a character so popular in Shakespeare’s history plays that he got his own “spinoff” in Merry Wives … you can’t get more “sitcom” than that!
  • An obsessively jealous husband Master Ford (a house-afire Ryan Ernst) who thinks it would be a wise idea to disguise himself as a rich old codger to trick his wife into cheating on him … with himself … to prove how unfaithful she is. Paging Darrin Stevens (from a different show altogether).

Photo collage by yours truly

Given all of that set up, eating up the first 20 minutes or so, the production takes a while to sort the conceit of Golden Girls-homage from the fussy Shakespearean business. It all aligns in due course, so just be patient with yourself, whether you are familiar with the original play, with The Golden Girls, with both, or with neither. Boudreau adds a clever framing device wherein the “studio audience” is hustled from Slipstream’s cozy lobby to the back performance space by a harried, headset wearing production assistant, doubling as the narrative-device character Simple (an eager and energetic Grace Trivax). It sets just the right tone for what is to unfold.

I might also add that, intentional or no, Merry Wives and the very nature of the piece couldn’t be timelier: empowering women to upend toxic masculinity (controlling husbands, manipulative suitors, philanderers, and sexual predators) through wit and wisdom, collaboration, and a good dose of shaming. There’s a nice bit of #MeToo underpinning the enterprise. That also aligns with the very progressive nature of The Golden Girls. It was a show ahead of its time, on its surface a simple bit of comic escape, but underneath a fairly biting critique of misogyny, ageism, homophobia, and classism.

We even had Ms. Frances Sternhagen take in our production of Merry Wives

Transitional music cues are lifted directly from the original show (which is a sweet touch), and costuming from Tiaja Sabrie is as 80s as it gets. Of particular note, the styling (hair, makeup, clothes) for Blanche/Anne, Dorothy/Mistress Page, and Stanley/Falstaff is broadcast-ready, immersing those characters (and the audience) in the look and feel of our beloved TV icons.

Merry Wives of Windsor Miami is a summer garden party, messy at times, riotous at others, completely unforgettable, and well worth your attendance. I suspect the cast will settle into a wonderful rhythm as the run proceeds, not unlike the finest situation comedy casts of yore. In addition to the principals, Jake B. Rydell, Tiaja Sabrie, and Alex “Cookie” Isenberg all bring heart and light to their supporting roles.

Shout out to the marketing materials on this show, as well, which cleverly set the tone for what you are about to witness. Jan Cartwright’s photography and the design by Esbee Creative are the right mix of Reaganomic-era kitsch and South Florida joie de vivre, lovingly mimicking the look and style of TV ads for the original series.

Yes, this is in our home

I would be remiss if I didn’t highlight the performances of Luna Alexander and Patrick O’Lear. It is a delicate tightrope to walk to make Shakespearean language understandable to an impatient modern ear, to imitate famed sitcom characters imprinted on our collective consciousness without devolving into caricature, and to keep the narrative moving apace so the audience doesn’t know what hit ‘em. Alexander and O’Lear both pull off that hat trick with aplomb.

For myself, I could watch Alexander read the phone book (do they still print those?) as McClanahan, all gummy smile, wild eyes, throaty voice, elongated vowels, and mincing walk. She even stays gloriously in character from the wings where Blanche, Rose, Dorothy, and Sophia all watch the action unfold from directors’ chairs. It’s a high-flying act, and she nails it. Tens across the board.

See you at the Rusty Anchor!

Slipstream Theatre Initiative offers The Merry Wives of Miami July 12 through August 4,  Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm, Sundays at 7 pm. Tickets can be purchased at www.slipstreamti.com, by emailing Slipstreamti@Slipstreamti.com, or calling (313) 986-9156. Read more about the production here.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Adrift in a sea of male menopause: Two Muses’ production of Jake’s Women

And presenting: ALL of Jake's Women. His girlfriend, his therapist, his sister, his wife, his late wife, his daughter aged 21 and 12. November 14-December 7. A heartwarming comedy by Neil Simon. [Photo by Melissa Tremblay of Platinum Imagery.]

And presenting: ALL of Jake’s Women. His girlfriend, his therapist, his sister, his wife, his late wife, his daughter aged 21 and 12. Through December 7. [Photo by Melissa Tremblay of Platinum Imagery.]

Playwright Neil Simon has always seemed to me like a man adrift in a sea of male menopause. The man sure can write a very funny line (I often think his work is best served in a musical comedy setting), yet he seems preserved in Swinging 60s amber, a throwback to another time when the whole country fantasized about living on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and found humor in delicatessen euphemisms and sitcom-sexualized comedies of error.

 

Simon’s semi-autobiographical memory play Jake’s Women, thereby is an interesting conundrum. First produced in 1990 and starring Alan Alda, the show is Simon’s post-mid-life-theatrical-crisis-writ-large. Simon literally and figuratively exorcises the the ghosts of women who have influenced and shaped his work. Take that, Joan Baim! And that, Marsha Mason! And that … Elaine Joyce?!? In the wrong hands, the play could be an exercise in misogyny at worst or farcical foolishness at best – a kind of Borscht Belt version of Fellini’s 8 1/2 (itself later staged/musicalized by Maury Yeston as Nine).

I am happy to report that the sparkling ensemble in Two Muses’ current production of Jake’s Women (directed by Bailey Boudreau) hits all the right notes. Given that Two Muses’ mission is to promote and celebrate the artistic contributions of women, this play is an inspired and intriguing choice. In lead actor Robert Hotchkiss, the production gives us a sensitive and grounded Jake, informed and haunted as much by modern life/sensibilities as he is by any kind of cooked-up gender war.

Jake’s marriage to whip smart corporate warrior Maggie is failing as he has never gotten past the death of his first wife Julie. The past and present collide as Dickensian specters (wives, daughter, therapist, sister, paramour) shadow Jake’s every move, given vibrant, intrusive life by his crumbling mental state. Jake as a writer is forever trapped in his own head, revisiting the past as a means of understanding the present yet never truly living in any moment. Jake’s laptop computer is an omnipresent stage symbol of the wall he puts between himself and the rest of humanity. I suspect anyone with a smart phone can relate to that.

As Maggie, Amy Morrissey provides the perfect counterpoint to Jake’s neuroses. She has a tricky task of playing Maggie both in the present day and as an idealized Maggie from the early days of their relationship. The actress shows great warmth and humor for the material but is never sidelined by Simon’s more misogynistic tendencies. Maggie is a person first and foremost, as she intones to Jake in one of their later conversations.

The ensemble work is particularly strong in this production. Charlotte Weisserman as Jake’s 12-year-old daughter Molly beams with a mischievously angelic presence – as does Barbie Weisserman as Jake’s sister, the chaotically big-hearted filmmaker Karen. (No shock there I supposed as Charlotte clearly has inherited some lovely, natural stage gifts from her talented real-life mom Barbie.)

Some of the production’s most emotionally affecting moments come from the theatrical mother-daughter team of Meredith Deighton as Jake’s late wife Julie  and Egla Kishta as college-age Molly. The familial dynamic achieved between Alexander, Kishta, and Hotchkiss during the play’s second act is remarkable – deeply felt with a comfort and ease rarely seen on any stage.

It wouldn’t be a Neil Simon show without some broad comic relief. Margaret Gilkes is sharp-edged fun as Jake’s saucy therapist Edith, aided and abetted by some of the script’s best zingers, which Gilkes nails with Elaine Stritch-y aplomb. Luna Alexander as Jake’s of-the-moment mistress has the show’s most raucous scene  (think The Odd Couple‘s Pigeon Sisters by way of The Jersey Shore‘s Snooki and Jwoww), and she wrings every bit of rimshot glee from her second act moment.

Like the majority of Two Muses’ output, the production values are spot-on, with clever and efficient use of the space, detailed but never overdone set dressing, classic character driven costuming, and an evocative lighting plot.

Back to Jake:  Hotchkiss builds his character beautifully, giving us a broken soul who is not just relatable but a lot of fun to watch. Jake’s journey is a difficult one to convey on stage, rife with potentially self-indulgent pitfalls, but Hotchkiss is very smart, warm, and wry and never panders to the audience or to his character’s many, many flaws.

Jake follows a similar arc to Company‘s Bobby, never sure who he really is and only finding motivation by pinging off the input of others. Unlike Sondheim, however, Simon offers Jake a bit more redemption. Hotchkiss does a fine job walking Jake’s circuitous path as he realizes that snark and witty wordplay do not healthy flesh-and-blood relationships make. The play’s script leaves us with an ambiguously happy ending, as Jake and Maggie set off to resolve their differences, but the rich performances by Hotchkiss and Morrissey overlay that denouement with a believable and honest sense of the couple’s future chances.

The play runs through December 7 at Two Muses Theatre. Two Muses Theatre performs in the Barnes & Noble Booksellers Theatre Space, 6800 Orchard Lake Rd, West Bloomfield, MI  48322, South of Maple (15 Mile). Enter the bookstore, and the theatre is on the left. Tickets can be purchased online here or by calling 248.850.9919 (Box Office Hours: By phone:  10am-5pm.  In person at the theatre, 60 minutes prior to all performances.)

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.