Like many of William Shakespeare’s works, “The Merry Wives of Windsor” has mistaken identities, cross dressing and plenty of laughs.
The play usually does not feature cowboys and Indians, and it rarely, if ever, is set in Oklahoma.
All of these changes will be in the Nash Art Center’s production, opening today, which moves the setting from the 1400s in England to 1800s in the Old West, an idea director Jim Singleton had for more than a decade.
“I was reading an article, and it was filled with headlines from the London Times or the Herald or whichever one it was,” Singleton said. “I ran across the headline that said ‘Wild Bill is the Falstaff of the West,’ and I went ‘What a great idea.’”
After thinking about the new spin for a while, Singleton said he began adapting the story about a year ago.
“We have enjoyed doing it, and we have enjoyed setting it up,” he said. “It has been a challenge. It is very wordy and it is very long. We have cut as much of it as we can without harming it.”
“Merry Wives” tells the tale of John Falstaff, a knight in the original play, who recently has arrived in town and, looking for some quick cash, decides to seduce two rich wives.
“Historically, in Shakespeare, Falstaff is King Henry V’s drinking partner,” said Jim Lee, who plays the character in the show. “Since we’ve updated the show to Oklahoma in 1876, Falstaff served on Grant’s staff as a major, and his job was making sure Grant has liquor. He was able to parlay that, after the war, after Grant became president and couldn’t have Falstaff hanging around, so he made him a marshal and sent him to Oklahoma.”
The role, Lee’s first as a leading actor in about 30 years, has more than 400 lines of dialogue.
“For the past several years, I have been composing and writing my own shows that were produced here at Nash Arts,” he said. “When Jim said that he was doing ‘Merry Wives,’ I was interested because there are not many leading men that are old and fat.”
While most of Shakespeare’s plays would be very difficult to adapt for modern times, Singleton said the nature of the story made it easy to change.
“The only thing you have to worry about is the fact that ‘Merry Wives of Windsor’ is very locale specific,” he said. “Windsor is just outside of London. It is a suburb of London. Many people, when they update it, set it in suburban America or Eisenhower’s suburban America, right after World War II.”
Updating the play actually has made it easier for some of the actors, such as Robert Bloomer, who plays the Rev. Hugh Evans.
“As far as Shakespeare goes, it is hard for me to remember the lines because it is not like learning normal, straight English,” he said. “Some of the words do not even make sense to me, especially when I am first learning them.”
With a cast of 29, the actors really have gotten close to each other as they have worked on the play, Bloomer said.
“They are really nice people,” he said. “It is a pretty relaxed and friendly atmosphere here, and everyone is really flexible with schedules. You have to be with community theater.”
The show is for families, but some of the content might be too adult for families with small children, Singleton said.
“What we would like to suggest, is that it is pretty much PG,” he said. “If you watch network television at night, it is no worse than that. We do make some bawdy references.”
The show starts at 7:30 p.m. today, Friday, Saturday and June 5, 6 and 7.
Ticket are $12, and can be purchased by calling 459-4734 or online at nasharts.org.