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To be or not TV: Could a Shakespeare comedy be the original sitcom?

In one scene from "The Merry Wives of Windsor," Sir John Falstaff hides in a laundry basket while others strain to carry it away. St. Louis Shakespeare Festival's production is touring St. Louis parks through Aug. 27.
Phillip Hamer Photography
In one scene from "The Merry Wives of Windsor," Sir John Falstaff hides in a laundry basket while others strain to carry it away. St. Louis Shakespeare Festival's production is touring St. Louis parks through Aug. 27.

Some Shakespeare plays feature kings and queens who contend with issues of conscience as they grapple over the fate of great nations. Others are more concerned with how a misguided suitor might sneak out of a lady’s bedroom in a laundry basket.

“The Merry Wives of Windsor” is in the latter category.

The play centers on Sir John Falstaff, a beloved source of comic relief in two of Shakespeare’s earlier plays about English history. He later placed the boastful knight and his companions in a comedy about Falstaff’s attempt to woo two married women and fleece them of their husbands’ fortunes. The women grow wise to his plan and devise various humiliations for him as they seek to teach him a lesson.

“It’s sort of like the original spinoff,” said Suki Peters, who directed the production of “Merry Wives” that St. Louis Shakespeare festival actors are performing in public parksacross St. Louis through Aug. 27. Performances are free.

Peters, who has created several parodies of well-known stories for Cherokee Street Theater Company where she is co-artistic director, has played up the Shakespeare comedy’s resemblance to story tropes familiar from television comedies. Her sound design even includes a bit of a laugh track and the sort of corny transition music familiar from sitcoms.

A six-person cast races through a fast-paced, 90-minute cut of the play that includes several references to 1990s pop culture. Carl Overly Jr. plays Falstaff while Rae Davis, Michelle Hand, Mitchel Henry-Eagles, Joel Moses and Christina Yancy all juggle multiple characters.

St. Louis Public Radio’s Jeremy D. Goodwin asked Peters how she retooled a Shakespearean comedy to resemble a piece of 1990s television.

Actors Rae Davis, Mitchell Henry-Eagles and Joel Moses perform a scene from Shakespeare's "The Merry Wives of Windsor."
Phillip Hamer Photography
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Phillip Hamer Photography
Actors Rae Davis, Mitchell Henry-Eagles and Joel Moses perform a scene from Shakespeare's "The Merry Wives of Windsor."

Jeremy D. Goodwin: The genesis of this play is that Shakespeare was basically playing a request, right?

Peters: It’s rumored that Queen Elizabeth I wanted Shakespeare to write another play with Falstaff, because he is a very well-loved character for all of England who saw the history plays that he appears in. It’s a spinoff. It’s like “Joey” coming out of “Friends.”

Goodwin: How does this production relate to parodies you’ve created in the past?

Director Suki Peters designed sound cues familiar from sitcom television.
St. Louis Shakespeare Festival
Director Suki Peters designed sound cues familiar from sitcom television.

Peters: That's a joy of mine, to do the parodies. We just recently did “Clash of the Titans,” and we’re prepping “The Neverending Story” in the winter months.

The festival approached me and said that they wanted me to do one of my treatments — not quite a parody, but reimagining a Shakespeare comedy through a different lens. And immediately I thought, “Merry Wives” really works well with a 1990 sitcom treatment.

The thing with 1990 sitcoms is that you see a lot of those familiar tropes that you also see in Shakespeare. I mean, he sort of created some of those tropes. So it blends very well.

Goodwin: There are situations in this play that will be familiar to anyone who’s seen an episode of “Three’s Company.” I know your production has more of a 1990s feel, but still, that classic sitcom form is familiar. What are some things from the play that remind us of that?

Peters: The wacky scenarios. Mistaken identity. Trying to put on a disguise, badly. Trying to sneak out of a situation or to hide.

Goodwin: How does Falstaff hide?
Peters: In what they called a buck basket. Picture a huge, gross laundry basket with soiled tablecloths and soiled linens and all of the gross laundry you need to do that just needs to be disinfected.

'St. Louis on the Air': 'Merry Wives' goes to 24 St. Louis-area parks

It was fun to explore how we could show Falstaff’s poor wooing and how he’s just kind of a train wreck and keeps getting thwarted. And of course, like in the 1990s sitcom world, his plan starts to spin out of control, and comedic antics ensue.

Goodwin: The “Merry Wives of Windsor” isn’t a play that’s top-of-mind for a lot of people. We don’t read it in school. People don’t run around quoting it. But it gets produced all the time. Why do theater people like doing this play so much?

Peters: Because it's so relatable. I think also, it has a lot of good lessons in it, like most of Shakespeare does. Like trusting, like listening to people, like trusting women specifically.

And then also the redemption and the joy and the inclusion at the end. It's not like they're mean to Falstaff, they play all these pranks, and they throw them out of the town. They do this to all help him learn and to grow. And in that process, then that community is built, and he's brought into that community, and everyone has a good time at the end.

Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.