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The Fat Man Lurketh: Shakespeare goes for the gut-busting comedy in 'Merry Wives of Windsor.'

Weight Watchers

SSC's 'Merry Wives' plays up Shakespeare's secret love of fat jokes

By Mike Connor

EVER SINCE I saw Chris Farley trying out for a Chippendale's position with Patrick Swayze on Saturday Night Live, I've known that fat guy jokes are really funny. Somehow, it's OK to laugh at people voluntarily poking fun at their portly bellies onstage and onscreen; it's some kind of weird comedy tradition that apparently stretches at least as far back as Shakespeare's time and still goes over like gangbusters. Farley sure wasn't shy about shaking it for laughs, and neither is Theodore Swetz as the larger-than-life Sir John Falstaff in this year's production of The Merry Wives of Windsor from Shakespeare Santa Cruz.

Although Swetz never actually exposes his well-endowed midsection, it's the butt of many clever jokes, and works as the guts of the play. Indeed, the central character's condition is not simply an artistic choice of Sari Ketter, the play's director. His girth is written into the dialogue all over the place, leaving no doubt about the Bard's intentions: Falstaff should be a really fat guy. So, did Shakespeare just have a whole bunch of fat jokes that he was dying to use, leading him to write a play with a lecherous fat guy as its central character? Possibly, or maybe Willie was getting writer's revenge upon someone he didn't like who also happened to be overweight, by immortalizing him as a bit of an ass.

Probably it was the latter, because this play is all about revenge against a fat guy. Mere seconds after becoming aware of Falstaff's amorous intentions, the tarty Mistress Page (Margaret Schenck) wants vengeance for Falstaff's fat, misguided heart, exclaiming, "How shall I be revenged on him? For revenged I will be, as sure as his guts are made of puddings." Yummy.

Mistress Ford (Jacqueline van Biene) feels similarly. "What tempest, I trow, threw this whale, with so many tons of oil in his belly, ashore at Windsor? How shall I be revenged on him?" she asks upon discovering that she was not the only one to receive a love letter from Falstaff. "I think the best way were to entertain him with hope, till the wicked fire of lust have melted him in his own grease." Even yummier.

A Simpler, Greasier Era

The greasy fry-cook metaphor works great with the updated setting of the play. Director Sari Ketter moves the play from Windsor, England, to Windsor, Conn., set sometime in the 1950s. The shiny Leave It To Beaver ideal of the era lends itself well to the goody-goody morals of the play. Oldies music, two miniature pools, some poolside patio furniture and well-trimmed hedges set the tone for some light-hearted spoofage. Rapiers are replaced with golf clubs and badminton rackets. Plaid and floral dominate the costumes in a "damn, they dressed silly back then" kind of way. Big, wide-eyed smiles harken back to old Doublemint commercials.

Wives is the story of an idyllic little community with a perfect little inn where everyone is polite, virtuous and wise, except for most of the characters in the play. Nevertheless, Wives is blissfully childlike in its quest to provide moral guidance. Falstaff is a greedy, scheming lecher who'll do anything for money and a piece of action. Long past his knightly heyday, Falstaff still thinks he can juice two of Windsor's richer wives for their monetary pounds and their womanly charms. When they find out about his dishonest intentions, mistresses Ford and Page decide to teach Falstaff a lesson. John G. Preston as Ford's husband Frank is a master of disguise; he gives a hilarious performance as an insanely jealous husband.

Meanwhile, three suitors vie for the young Anne Page (Noel True). Ryan Artzberger plays the nerdy, nasally schoolteacher Abraham Slender, who's coerced into wooing Page by his uncle (Frank Anderson) and his parson (Thomas Jay Ryan). With his shorts pulled up to his chest, Artzberger makes a great wimpy dork a la Pee Wee Herman. Adam Scally plays Doctor Caius, the French doctor who's madly in love with Anne Page. His horrendously exaggerated "French" accent goes great with his turtleneck and goatee, and makes for some funny wordplay. Judith Roberts is entertaining as Caius' ubiquitous housekeeper, playing Mistress Quickly like a sweet and drunken Joan Rivers. And look: is it coincidence that the super-skinny Mistress Quickly leads the moral-of-the-story song for Falstaff: "Fie on sinful fantasy! Fie on lust and luxury! Lust is but a bloody fire, kindled with unchaste desire." So say the ultraconservatives, so it's hard not to pull for the guy.

Speaking of which, Swetz plays a loveable, if fallible, Falstaff. And yeah, OK, he's a bit scandalous and slimy, too. Alas, the poor bugger! Having visited the husky section of the pants aisle myself, I can sympathize. And look where the poor guy ends up: "They would melt me out of my fat drop by drop and liquor fishermen's boots with me; I warrant they would whip me with their fine wits 'til I were as crest-fallen as a dried pear." Awww! Guess he didn't get the Chippendale's gig, either.


The Merry Wives of Windsor plays through Sept. 1 at The Festival Glen, UCSC. Tickets at 831.459.2159 or Tickets.com.

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From the July 17-24, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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