The Very Merry Wives of Windsor, Iowa: Transition or Transformation

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CopyrightKeyvan Tabari2012. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization ofKeyvan Tabari.

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In the lobby of the venerable Ashland Springs Hotel the melodic voice of Dean Martin crooning: “Dance with me, dance with me, make me sway!” greeted arriving guests.  I asked the wholesome looking twenty-something clerk at the reception desk if she could name the singer. She was baffled and blushed. “No,” she said. She then asked her colleague, only a bit older but sporting an air of worldliness. “Have no clue,” was his answer. The lobby was nearly empty but guests were present at breakfast the next morning where they were serenaded once again by “Dino” intoning “Papa loves mambo, mama loves mambo.” The guests also revealed their generation as did the quaint furniture of the spacious dining room. The chow was a modest spread at the center of which was warm oatmeal and small unappetizing muffins worthy of a mass production bakery. In the evening, however, this Larks Restaurant was the domain of a proud chef who had just wonAshland’s award for being the best in using “local organic ingredients.” Minus the organic you could imagine yourself transported almost to an era when this venue was the best accommodations the town could offer. Now awkward, but still charming old wicker garden chairs were arranged around the tables in the indoor grand eating salon.Ashlandhas changed and yet remained the same. The question was whether we were witnessing a transition, a transformation, or simply a turning cycle.

That night the playwright Alison Carey addressed the same question for us in her The Very Merry Wives of Windsor, Iowa which debuted at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival this season. This was her take from the Bard’s late 16th century play by (almost) the same name. Like its inspiration, Shakespeare’s only “domestic comedy,” this one is silly and yet profound. It is a farce with dialogues that force you to ponder issues near and afar which are tenuously connected. The loose connections, ironically, make you focus on their weave to see the beauty of the yarns.

Just as Verdi had taken liberties with Shakespeare’s play in his opera Falstaff, Carey does not shy away from interjecting her views. The original themes are all there: love, marriage, jealousy and above all revenge, set against a background of clashing perspectives of deceptively gullible yokel folks and self-impressed foolish city slickers. The denouement is the predicable comeuppance of the latter.

Carey’s ambition is bigger than merely updating a biting comic tale. Her Wives of Windsor, Iowa is one of a series she has undertaken to create plays about “moments of change” in American history, inspired by Shakespeare’s more serious historical plays. The moment of change in this play is now. The play is pivoted on the contemporary issue of same-sex relationship. Not long before the 52 year old Ms. Carey was at Harvard, six students at the nearby Wellesley College were expelled for lesbianism. This was not then uncommon in comparably progressive institutions.  Today, the contrast cannot be any sharper if you listen to the Wives of Windsor, Iowa. In the last scene the heroin, Ann, apologetically asks her parents to be excused from the two marriages they had arranged for her, each to a separate woman. “Mom, Dad, I’m sorry to disappoint you. I love same-sex marriage, sure. But love it more than my own heart’s calling? I am straight. I must be true to myself, as I would everyone could do. That is whatIowa’s about.”

The same-sex marriage that Carey talks about is almost exclusively limited to lesbians. Shakespeare’s love story of the Merry Wives is about competing over a woman. But unlike Carey, Shakespeare had not constructed two of her three suitors as women; they were all men. The same was true about the spouse ofAlice Ford, one the two wives pursued by the villainous Senator John Falstaff for their money. In ShakespeareAlice’s spouse is a man. Carey makes that husband a “wife,” thus creating still two more lesbians in the play. It maybe that Carey is simply more at home with women characters, while in Shakespeare’s time they had the additional problems of having to be played by men -who alone could be actors. Thus 6 of the 15 characters who are women in Carey’s play are men in Shakespeare’s. She also shows subtle preference for women as when between the parents who want to impose their separate choices on whom their daughter, Ann, should marry, it is the mother (still conventionally preferring “the doctor” between the two choices) who first concedes to a third suitor: “My daughter will I question how she loves you/ And as I find her, so I may be moved.”

Carey turns Bard’s Sir Hugh Evans into her play’s sole male homosexual. His preference is expressed only in stereotypically effeminate gestures. Indeed, he is really neither gay nor straight: rather, he, as Reverend Hugh Evans, loves “only one man, and He’s above.”  Carey creates still a fourth category of men (counting the straights Fenton, George Page and Pistol), represented by Falstaff who “will love no man as I love myself.”

Unlike in Shakespeare, Hugh here is a foreigner. He’s a Canadian who in fact, at one point in Carey’s play, sings the whole bilingual version of the Canadian national anthem. Then he andCanadaare gently mocked as such by his singing these lines given to him by Carey: “Oh, caribou stew, oh boiled fiddleheads, oh maple syrup on everything.”  Hugh’s devotion to the “Canucks” is so strong that he accepts the challenge to a duel with the only other foreigner in the play, the German Dr. Kaya, in part because of their dispute regarding which country’s hockey team is better. The Americans are clever peace-makers by attempting to lead them to separate locations and when that fails, by breaking their weapons which are their beloved hockey sticks. This disarmament works only because the two parties determine that they should be friends against those mutual enemies, the Americans. They agree to divide hockey glory, with ice hockey going to Canada and field hockey to Germany.

New-immigrant management is made simple as Carey depicts these foreigners in old-fashioned stereotypes. For her part, Dr. Kaya is a rigid German “woman of science” who refers to her intended love, Ann, as a “patient” and whose ultimate medical treatment is using leeches. Her accent is thick, her speech is sprinkled with German words and her dream is to become an American citizen.

In Carey’s farce there are other current stereotypes and beliefs. Thus, America’s history shows that “no matter how sinful the original sin –genocide, slavery, utterly shameless, lawless inhumanity to man– you can always balance it out with a few high quality, rights-based ideas of which you are the primary beneficiary.” The “fancy footwork” that makes governance possible today consists of “lying, cheating and stealing.” The same works for “a giant, multi-national corporation.” Ethanol “is incredibly inefficient and threatens the food supply… But Iowans love it, because it makes them rich.” Lobbyists and their money are eagerly welcomed by politicians. The latter are insufferably vain. Their idea of an American melting pot is where they subject all to equal opportunity exploitation. The American notion of a healthy lifestyle is defined by carbs and calories, except for professional golfers for whom golf defines life. The price of “a little temporary safety” has become giving up “essential liberty” to the likes of FBI agents. On the other hand, we should be vigilant against “anthropogenic global warming.”  The discourse about church and state might best be held in contexts that tend to unite (not divide) them, such as wedding ceremonies.

If all of this sounds familiar and good to the old-fashioned liberals, say the readers of The New Yorker, it should be no surprise. In fact, as a marriage vow, Carey’s lovers are expected “to change the New Yorker subscription to both your names!” Compatibly progressive, such marriage can now be officiated with “an Internet certificate.” That is, incidentally, the only notice that the play takes of the enormously significant impact of the Internet on American society. Carey’s characters text but she does not go beyond this on the transformative role of High Tech. The transformation she is focused on is American society’s acceptance of lesbianism and, more broadly, same- gender marriage. This receives full exposition in her play as the inclusion of the word Very in the title hints.

The chauvinistic disparagement of lesbianism is noted. The lesbians are now all over, Falstaff says, even in truck stops where you see “a couple of dewy-eyed lesbians ordering cake and milk for everyone and twirling their new wedding rings like they never wore jewelry before.” In fact, however, “the gay gals are just one good man away from straightness.” The opposite view to Falstaff’s is juxtaposed by George, whose “enthusiastic embrace of same-sex marriage” has no bounds. “Some of my best friends are lesbians and as faithful follower ofIowa’s laws and traditions, I wholly embrace, serve, devote myself to and otherwise heartily endorse all things same-sex marriage related.” Supporting the rights of gays to marry, George denies the same to his straight daughter, as her heterosexual suitor Fenton points out. George who cannot imagine his daughter being anything but lesbian says: “Of course, not being a woman, Mr. Fenton can hardly enter into same-sex marriage with one. The whole notion is foolhardy poppycock and distinctly non-Iowan.”

Between those two extremes are other stereotypical views. Carey mentions several that are deemed wrong in the play although favorable to gays, such as “happy gay talk” and the impression that “homogenized marriage” is less complicated. On the other hand, one of Carey’s characters warns the other of “violent lesbian street gang members… with guns and knives and those leather wrist strappies.” The plight of prostitutes who might walk down the street “in being the object of undesired attentions,” is sympathetically mentioned. “The objectification of women” who participate in “a swimsuit competition,” is derided, invoking the feminist pioneers “Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Susan Faludi.” In Carey’s words the resolution of all those conflicting opinions about lesbianism is simply in avoiding impingement on “anyone’s freedom to love as they will.” In truth “only same-soul marriage earns the name.”

While Merry Wives of Windsor, Iowa has the architecture of the original by the Bard, the texture of its story is not the same, until toward the end when “things get really Shakespearean,” by which Carey means the plot “thickens.”  Its language too, while embellished with Elizabethan wordplay and twisting of syntax, is more direct.  The setting of the play beingIowa the jokes here are corny and earthy. They are rolled in butter and manure. The referents of the allusions are also mid-American. The hole in the golf course evokes meaning as a sexual orifice. The all-around effect is that the play is more accessible to an audience in this country.

That goal, of course, has to be achieved by competent production, particularly in the actors’ performances. InAshland, veteran actor David Kelly sets the tone as he plays at slapstick comedy. He is ably supported by Gina Daniels asAliceFord. Catherine E. Coulson, Daniel T. Parker, Judith-Marie Bergan, and Ted Teasy (respectively as Miss Quickly, Reverend Hugh Evans, Manager of the Come On Inn, and George Page) all deliver their burdens well.  Robin Goodrin Nordil tries too hard as Francie Ford and as a result comes through a bit too strident. Brooke Parks is not quit convincing as Doctor Kaya. Terri McMahon needs to project her voice more.  Miles Fletcher, Joe Wegner and DeLanne Studi perform their respective roles of Fenton, Pistol and Nym satisfactorily.

The half-open Allen Pavilion in Ashlandwhich was the venue for this production is one of America’s oldest Elizabethan theaters. It seats 1,190 but tonight it was nearly one-third empty. This was unusual in my experience of seeing plays there which dates back for three decades. When I asked for an explanation, a fellow fan smiled and said the Merry Wives of Windsor, Iowa was “controversial.” She was a resident ofAshland and an ardent supporter of this Oregon Shakespeare Festival for even a longer period. Referring to her group of “locals,” she said: “We thought the play was avant-garde and good, but it went too far.” By this she meant the emphasis on lesbianism. Could it be thatAshland, experimental as it prides itself to be, was not as progressive as Carey’s imaginaryWindsor,Iowa? I asked the volunteer at the Tudor Guild Gift Shop when I bought the official script of the play. She too was an old-timer. Pleased that I had noticed her Phi Beta Kappa pin worn around her neck -“Wheaton College,Massachusetts, one ofAmerica’s oldest college for women”- she said, “it was about time for this play.”

Outside, “on the bricks,” the courtyard fronting the Festival’s two main theaters, I sat with three budding Shakespearean actors from Iraqon the stage where earlier that evening they had performed. As members of the “AmericanUniversityof Iraq-Sulaimani Shakespeare Company,” these young women, along with their seven fellow male students, had been invited to provide that night’s installment of the 45 minute Green Show. Consisting of diverse groups, the nightly Shows are free and wildly popular with locals and visitors alike. The Iraqi women did not respond to my query about the Wives of Windsor, Iowa. The object of their love was demonstrably their country.

For Michael, whom I met later, love was his country. He said that his parents were Jewish but that he also “got to learn about Catholicism” from his mother’s best friend who was Catholic. He had journeyed beyond formal religions. He was from Marin, Californiaand had been a successful businessman. He was now a sculptor disdainful of material possessions. In the shady LithiaParkdown the slope from the Festival’s courtyard, Michael had set up one of his wood sculptures in the center of a spread dedicated to objects he considered evocative of the spiritual experience that he wanted to share with passerby. He invited all to “write a note” about their response to his installation. I noticed a book about Hafez (Hafiz) displayed prominently next to his sculpture. “I love Hafez. He is my idol,” Michael said to me. He encouraged me to thumb through the book. The Gift: Poems by Hafiz the Great Sufi Master, Translations by Daniel Ladinski was published in 1999, and this well-worn volumeshowed its age. I leafed through it. Ladinski has said that he offers interpretations and renderings of the poet, rather than literal or scholarly translations. There was no indication that he knew Persian. Too bad, because the singular value of Hafez’s poetry is that he is, indeed, the master of the poetic use of the Persian language. The Gift said that Ladinski’s knowledge about Hafez came from his time spent in a spiritual community in western India. That is probably the source of the title he gives to Hafez, the Sufi Master. Michael was interested in my assessment and in response I also shared with him my opinion that calling Hafez a Sufi was constricting him. He would accept the confinement of no frock. Indeed, in a celebrated stanza, Hafez specifically rejects the Sufi garb. Michael pursued and I recited in Persian: Hafez in khergheh pashmineh biandaz (Hafez throw off this Sufi wool frock.)” Michael was especially pleased to hear that what Hafez offered transcended such Islamic mysticism and was closer to what he was seeking. Love itself was Hafez’s “religion.” I gave Michael this proof in Hafez’s own poetic declaration: Rahro manzel-e eshghim o ze sar hadd-e adam/ta eghlim-e vojood in hameh rah amedeim! (We are pilgrims to the station of love and from the frontier of nothingness/wehave traveled the long distance to the world of being.)

A still different quest for love seemed to fuel what I saw just around the corner on the main street ofAshland. This town was without any sign of homeless people, except in the little square that ironically was where the Chamber of Commerce office was also located. The handful of men and one or two women who hung out there seemed to be more hippy than homeless. Loud drumming and a faint scent of marijuana smoke were their only intrusions into the others’ world. I asked youngSofiaabout them, suggesting that they were seekers for love in their own way. A hard-working innkeeper, she scoffed: “We call them trustofarians. They are spoiled brats.”Ashlanddid not suffer a summer of love -at least on its business streets. The stores here displayed a picture of a young man who had been killed recently. A woman who saw me reading the words under the picture which offered a reward of $10,000 for leads to solving the murder volunteered that she knew the victim: “He worked in Safeway. We think it was gangs or drugs.”

A relic of the 60s lifestyle was locked up behind the fence not far fromSofia’sInn. It was a converted bus that had been used as “Moonshine Luv Shack .” This was in the Railroad District of town. A bridge dated 1907 over the tracks marked the area’s heyday. The District is being revived as the new “old town,” with chic art galleries and coffee houses which proudly show the old signs on their older brick walls, yet another urban recycling so successful across this country. Enough overgrown grass of unattended yards and dilapidated structures still remain to tell the story of the times in between. That was when this place lapsed into the stagnant decay of a provincial small town in the farmlands which the proverbial Midwestern Iowa was supposed to look like before playwrightAlison Carey arrived for her make-over.Ashlandmay prove that the speedy make-over of the physical is easier. The change in human relationships is more incrementally transitional than a dramatic transformation.

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    • Ahmad Mohyeee
    • July 30th, 2012

    This is a New Yorker style and quality article: multifaceted, charming, erudite, literary.

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