Merry Wives of Windsor

Ashland Shakespeare: out of chaos

This season's four Shakespeare shows – "Henry IV One and Two," "Julius Caesar," "Merry Wives" – ripple across thematic borders

ASHLAND – At first glance, this season’s slate of four Shakespeare plays at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival feels like a game of “one of these things is not like the other”: Henry IV Part One and Two are an obvious pairing, and they join up with The Merry Wives of Windsor via the character of Falstaff, who appears in all three (a number that leaves him tied with Prince Hal for the second-most appearances of a single character in separate Shakespeare plays, one behind Margaret of Anjou). Then there’s Julius Caesar. Well, that political tragedy’s tone isn’t so far off from the Henry IV plays, but then what about Merry Wives?

For all the plays’ dissimilarities, a closer look reveals rich thematic threads that lend OSF’s Shakespearean season a sense of cohesion, and a subtle but highly relevant message. All of these plays, which continue in repertory in Ashland through mid-October or later, are concerned with the making and breaking of relationships, and with efforts to define community out of chaos.

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“Henry IV, Part One”: Hotspur (Alejandra Escalante) prepares to bid her wife Lady Percy (Nemuna Cessay) farewell before joining her father’s rebellion on the battlefield. Photo: Jenny Graham

The two parts of Henry IV make up a sort of mini-repertory in the small Thomas Theatre, with almost all of the actors in them appearing only in those two plays, and casting carrying through from one part to the next. Jeffrey King returns from last year’s Richard II—then, he played the ambitious usurper Bolingbroke, now not-so-firmly settled into his status as King Henry IV.

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Five questions for the Falstaffs

Between them, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's K.T. Vogt and G. Valmont Thomas are playing the Big Guy in all three of his shows. Here's what they think.

This year, Falstaff is all over the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. OSF patrons can see all three plays that feature that most well-loved, most roundly hated, most written-about of Shakespeare’s (perhaps) comic creations, Sir John Falstaff. He appears as a mentor, teacher, playmate, and friend to Prince Hal – who will someday be Henry V – in both parts of Henry IV, and this season, he’s played in both by G. Valmont Thomas.

The Henrys are some of the best of Shakespeare’s history plays, but Falstaff has a longer life: A theory exists that Queen Elizabeth liked the character of Falstaff so much that she asked the Bard to write a play, supposedly in 14 days, which featured Falstaff in love. True or not, The Merry Wives of Windsor is a comedy that indeed features Sir John Falstaff trying to woo and win at least a couple of women at once, and hijinks definitely ensue. It’s a comedy, but also for several scenes an excellent farce, and it features Falstaff considering his place in life as he grows older. Thomas played that role in OSF’s 2006 version of Merry Wives, but this year the Falstaff of love is played by the festival’s K.T. Vogt.

Poins ((Michael Gabriel Goodfriend) and Mistress Quickly (Michele Mais) are unconvinced by Sir John Falstaff’s (G. Valmont Thomas’s) account of his bravery during a robbery in “Henry IV, Part 1.” Photo: Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival

With the festival’s summer open-air shows opening this weekend on the Elizabethan Stage (Merry Wives on Friday, June 16; Mary Zimmerman’s adaptation of The Odyssey on Saturday; Disney’s Beauty and the Beast on Sunday) we asked both Falstaffs five questions via email as they rehearsed for the openings of Merry Wives and Henry IV, Part 2. They are due to present themselves for a similar discussion for a special donor/member event on Sunday morning of opening weekend.

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