Kingsmen Park, on the campus of California Lutheran University, will soon be home to political intrigue á la the 14th century, as well as deceptive lovers, swordplay and . . . miniskirts. Get out your picnic baskets and chill the wine, because the Kingsmen Shakespeare Festival opens Friday, June 28. This year, The Merry Wives of Windsor and Richard II take to the outdoor stage. A comedy and a history, respectively, they’re sure to delight Shakespeare enthusiasts and create new fans by summer’s end. First up is The Merry Wives of Windsor, which the Kingsmen Shakespeare Company set in the 1960s — hence the miniskirts, mod colors and big hair. The company’s production has a look and feel that are reminiscent of classic sitcoms of the time, such as Gilligan’s Island.
“We don’t ever set a play in an era just for the sake of doing it,” explains artistic director Michael Arndt. He adds that the play’s director, festival veteran Kevin Kern, was inspired by 1960s TV comedies because “they were sophisticated and yet silly and over-the-top” and that seems to reflect the tone, themes and characters of The Merry Wives of Windsor. For one thing, the comedy is Shakespeare’s only play without a character of noble birth; there isn’t a king, queen or even a dowager countess to be seen. Scholars have dubbed it Shakespeare’s “blue collar comedy.”
As Arndt points out, it’s filled with stock characters, or broad stereotypes, much like the popular sitcoms of the 1960s. (Think the Professor and Mary Ann, but in this case, it’s Falstaff and married women.) Legend has it that Queen Elizabeth I so loved the character Falstaff (who first appeared in Shakespeare’s Henry IV) that she asked Shakespeare to write a play in which Falstaff would fall in love. As the story goes, Shakespeare obliged and wrote a farce about the morally dubious Falstaff, who is taught a lesson when he tries to seduce the wives of two wealthy men.
The Merry Wives of Windsor is written mostly in prose, rather than in verse, making it one of Shakespeare’s more accessible plays. Arndt is also confident that audiences, especially fans of Mad Men or The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, will appreciate the sets and costumes of The Merry Wives of Windsor. The music, too, evokes the ’60s. It was written especially for the production by composer John Carta, who has worked on many TV shows. Arndt explains that, aside from the throwback visuals and tone, the Kingsmen’s production is “pretty traditional.” After all, he adds, “the play is about marriage, so we have to play it traditionally.”
Richard II, however, is another story. This is the Kingsmen’s first time producing the history and director Arndt has chosen to put a spin on it: Women are cast in some key male roles.
“Bringing women into the roles makes it richer,” he says, adding that women “provide an interesting perspective. They create new energies, playing [the roles] of noblewomen and soldiers.” Back in Shakespeare’s day, women were not allowed to act onstage, which, Arndt believes, explains why Shakespeare wrote mostly male characters. “If Shakespeare were writing today he would bring in more women.”
Arndt brought in Hannah Tamminen to play the role of Bolingbroke, the main rival to Richard, played by Brett Elliott. “It’s really exciting,” says Tamminen, who makes her festival debut this year. (She is also cast as Mistress Page in The Merry Wives of Windsor.) As Bolingbroke, Tamminen plays a character vying to be queen, and — SPOILER ALERT — in the end, she prevails. “The woman gets to ascend!” Tamminen exclaims. “Historically, King Richard was not very popular,” she adds.
In contrast, “Bolingbroke was a leader for the people and was very charismatic.” (In real life, Henry Bolingbroke ruled as Henry IV.) In the play, which is widely regarded as one of Shakespeare’s most poetic, Richard banishes Bolingbroke, seizes noble land, wages war and generally makes a mess of things until Bolingbroke, the rightful king (or in this case, queen) returns and takes the throne. What’s it like to play a role that has, for hundreds of years, been traditionally male?
“I don’t think I approach it differently. It’s more about the power dynamic between my character and Richard. It’s really fun to explore the relationship with Richard,” Tamminen says. At times, that dynamic breaks into a sword fight. “There’s something that comes with carrying a sword . . . even the way you walk,” says Tamminen. “How it changes my movement and physicality.”
Arndt sets the play in the 14th century, but the sets are not especially authentic to the era. The same goes for the music, which was composed especially for the production by veteran festival collaborator Christopher Hoag. “It’s not really evocative of the 14th century,” says Arndt, but, like the sets, it feels like the 14th century. “It’s another dimension,” he explains, kind of like the way Game of Thrones feels like it’s set in the Middle Ages.
The play seems relevant no matter what era it is. “It’s a timely piece about the transition of power,” Tamminen says. “It’s definitely a prevalent topic in American politics. Essentially, Bolingbroke and Richard are from two different parties or two different families.”
Arndt echoes that sentiment, noting that Richard II “resonates with what’s happening in the U.S.” It shouldn’t be overlooked, however, that with all its portrayal of political strife, the play is filled with some of Shakespeare’s most beautiful language and imagery.
Whether it’s the 1960s or the (somewhat) 14th century, the Kingsmen draw us into the wonder of Shakespeare. And once again, they make it feel new again.
The Merry Wives of Windsor, June 28-July14; Richard II, July 19-Aug. 4 at Kingsmen Park, California Lutheran University, 60 W. Olsen Road, Thousand Oaks. For full schedule, tickets and more information, visit www.kingsmenshakespeare.org.