Tony Mastroianni Review Collection

"Merry Wives" Steal the Show

Cleveland Press June 15, 1967

STRATFORD, Ont. -- "The Merry Wives of Windsor" may be Falstaff's play as written, but actress Zoe Caldwell as one of the wives took possession of it last night as the Stratford Festival opened its third work of the season.

Never mind that the play is supposed to recount the further adventures of the massive old lecher. Forget that actor Tony Van Bridge is a robust and nimble Falstaff.

Miss Caldwell is an actress who totally immerses herself in a character. Her Mrs. Page is a portrait made up of dozens of almost imperceptible touches, of sudden changes of mood, of shrugs and looks and a toss of the head.

This wonderful actress from Australia was Lady Ann in "Richard III" Monday night in a performance that was chilling with its intensity. In July she will play Cleopatra to Christopher Plummer's Anthony.

But last night she was a gossipy matron with a bonnet on her head, a basket on her arm and matters domestic on her mind.

And what of that other merry wife? Frances Hyland as Mrs. Ford is charming with a look of mischief about her that is utterly disarming.

THEY WERE NOT the coarse and monotonous women remembered from other productions. They gave a lift to a play that can use any help it can get.

Van Bridge was a very satisfactory Falstaff, always right, never overdone, with a good sense of timing that made the most of his punning lines. But it was not an overpowering performance that swept everything before it.

Director David William opened his production of "Merry Wives" with a parade, a bear in chains, the swirl of bagpipes and the pounding of a drum -- all preceding the arrival of the giant knight.

IT IS A GOOD attempt to liven up the dullest first 20 minutes that any play ever had. But the rest of the material is too much for him and the dullness sets in until we get to the conniving of the wives and the would-be lechery of Falstaff.

Some of the dialog of lesser characters is too undecipherable to be understood, let alone funny. And a few of the actors had a tendency to swallow their words last night.

Director William does succeed in several scenes that are pure slapstick -- stuffing the portly Falstaff into the basket of clothes, his second narrow escape later dressed in women's clothes, his ardent furniture-breaking wooing of Mistress Page.

UNSUCCESSFUL, however, is the concluding spectral scene in the forest. It proceeds with unnecessary slowness and the result is a fizzle instead of a bang.

Other performers who help this production immensely are Jean Gascon as a very, very French and funny Dr. Caius and Mervyn Blake as the sturdy inn-keeper.

Film actor Alan Bates, the Richard III of opening night, is still not completely at home doing Shakespeare but his jocular attitude was more appropriate to the role of Ford than it was to that of a murderous king.