The words are all the Bard's, but they were never spoken like this. In a positively stunning execution, University Theatre at NCSU has taken two totally disparate institutions and combined them, with a rare and fascinating result. With a complete sense of fun and an eye for the minutest detail, adapter/director Rachel Klem has concocted one of the most clever and adroitly realized re-mountings of Shakespeare ever conceived! If that sounds like hyperbole, judge not. You are going to have to see this to believe it. It is difficult to decide whether Will himself would be rolling in his grave, or rolling in the aisles.
Avon's Bard is a hearty soul, and his writings have survived, nay thrived, upon many a varied and often inspired concept of re-staging. From a simple staged version in modern dress to a concoction that sometimes has repulsed, Shakespeare's classic lines have survived many a strange and wondrous vision when it comes to re-imagining the stage from which we hear them. But this particular re-staging, and how the total effect has been conceived and executed, is wondrous indeed.
Klem has designed and staged Shakespeare's comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor as a reality TV show, The Real Housewives of Windsor. Set in modern-day Windsor, CT, The Real Housewives brings us Shakespeare as viewed through the camera's lens amid the suburbs, as two upscale Housewives take on a loser of a soldier who would lead them astray. Indeed, our two heroines never had it so good, as Klem's sublimely executed vision brings us the games people play through the lens of a reality TV show.
Using a superb set that combines everything from the idyllic fields and woods of modern Connecticut to a nicely stocked Garter Bistro, The Real Housewives of Windsor uses every single technique of modern television to tell us this ages-old tale. We become engrossed in the lives of these two lovely ladies and their upscale households, all the while being introduced to some of the weirdest creatures ever assembled being splashed across the airwaves. Klem covers it all, from the spectacular use of camerawork and graphics that puts all these antics on a huge reality-TV screen stage left, to the widespread use of alcohol and money to grease the workings of intrigue. Throughout it all, Klem remains true to the spirit of the original work, as our two intrepid ladies of fashion find various ways of duping and punishing our renegade knight, Falstaff.
As a package, this concept of Shakespeare in modern times is as total and complete as it is inspired. Everything runs like a television program would: three different cameramen (or women, as is sometimes the case) and a boom operator scurry about the set trying to capture all these folks on tape while our Socialites scam the scammer. Mistress Ford (Rebecca Rushing) and Mistress Page (Maanasa Thyagarajan) plot the downfall of the rogue Falstaff (Hunter Ives) over fluted wineglasses of bubbly, dressed to the nines in the height of fashion, while their husbands, Ford (Kenny Hertling) and Page (John Gupton) try to figure out just what exactly is going on here. Meanwhile, Mistress Quickly (Riki Dows) is busy collecting large sums of cash for the work she is doing, trying to marry off the Pages' darling daughter Anne (Sydney Smallwood) to no less than three different suitors: Master Page's choice for his daughter's hand, Master Slender (Chris McBennett); Mistress Page's studied choice for the honor, Dr. Caius (Patrick Seebold); or Anne's own personal choice, Master Fenton (Ahmed Osman). A full contingent of eighteen cast members is required to pull this thing off; the action is as fast-paced as you might expect, and when they all hit the stage with modern dance music, the whole theater starts hoppin'!
This magnificently staged production must be a combination of acting and some very solid technical wizardry, as graphics and camerawork identify every individual on stage, using TV sound-stage equipment to rival the best network studio. This set is a marvel, designed by Jaime Mellema, with inspired lights and projection design by Joshua Reaves and some spectacular sound design by Eric Alexander Collins. University Theatre's Artistic Director, John C. McIlwee, puts in his adroit hand on costumes and hair design, aided and abetted by Laura J. Parker. All of this technical design and execution must be pulled off precisely, if story and concept are to work in tandem; from where we sat, every single individual thread of execution went off in spectacular fashion, leaving this audience feeling exactly like we had just witnessed a showing of The Real Housewives, complete with closing graphics and a preview of coming attractions!
From set design and execution — that lighting tower dominating stage right is in itself a wonder to behold! — to individual camera work and some absolutely divine character studies, this whole package becomes much more than the sum of its individual parts. Precise execution, total concentration, and detailed and inspired characters, all must come together and work seamlessly if this massive concept is to succeed, and does it ever! Every single detail was impeccable. If there was even the slightest bobble on stage opening night, it went completely unobserved by the rapt and stunned audience. Engrossed does not begin to describe it. This magnificently executed concept is so complete that my mere words cannot adequately describe it; it must be witnessed to be believed.
This total television concept gave us an added benefit at closing: as each small group of actors appeared for their curtain call, the names of the actors appeared, boxed and highlighted, on the screen! This small but important addition is simply one aspect of this brainstorm of a show totally conceived by Rachel Klem. Klem has joined the staff at University Theatre direct from her years-long success as founder and director of Common Ground Theatre, which graced Durham and offered a well-needed open forum for individual performing groups to use. This University Theatre staging, which so completely meshes the ages-old and the thoroughly-new, has got to be a milestone in her long association with theatre in the Triangle. We wait with bated breath to see what her next project is going to be!
The Real Housewives of Windsor continues through April 9. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.