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Shakespeare takes on the Arb with 'The Merry Wives of Windsor'

By Kelly Etz, Senior Arts Editor
Published June 6, 2012

“All the world’s a stage…”

Back in 2001, Residential College Drama professor Katherine Mendeloff took one of Shakespeare’s most famed quotations in a very literal direction when she staged “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in the Nichols Arboretum; the inaugural performance of what has become a much beloved Ann Arbor summer staple: Shakespeare in the Arb.

As the artistic director of Shakespeare in the Arb, Mendeloff, along with current and previous University students, faculty and Ann Arbor-ites alike, took full advantage of the natural beauty richly abundant in the arboretum, engaging a living backdrop for some of the Bard’s most lively prose.

“As we explored it, it just fit so well, it was just a perfect match,” Mendeloff said.

“I don’t do Shakespeare in my other classes, this is my one opportunity during the year,” she added. “And so I find that very satisfying.”

For the 12th season, Mendeloff has chosen another of Shakespeare’s comedies for the annual production — “The Merry Wives of Windsor” — lesser known, but featuring one of the playwright’s most outlandish and beloved characters: Falstaff.

The plot centers around Falstaff, who is woefully short on funds, and his excursion to Windsor, where he woos two wealthy women, Mistress Ford and Mistress Page, in the hopes of obtaining wealth once again.

“It’s the only play he wrote that has a middle-class setting,” Mendeloff said. “It’s the closet to his world of Stratford, growing up in a market town. I’ve tried really hard to create that visually … There will be peasants going by with wheelbarrows full of hay, there will be women washing laundry in the river, there will be children running around and playing.”

To create and set the mood for the production, Mendeloff trusts the natural landscape to prompt the audience into a different sort of mind-frame.

“It’s a great opportunity to celebrate the natural world that Shakespeare really is very connected to in his writing, with the natural world of the Arb,” Mendeloff said.

“For example, last night at dress rehearsal, we had a deer just walk through a scene," Mendeloff said. "The characters were pretending to have horns and to be deer and there was a real deer and you know that's just an opportunity you don’t get often — these sort of serendipitous opportunities of nature are very special.”

However, a living backdrop is a constant surprise, running a heightened risk of disruptions, like the occasional erroneous jogger or helicopter.

As LSA junior Jennifer Burks — who plays one of this year’s Mistress Page’s — attested, nature isn’t always welcoming.

“Yes, we tend to deal with some poison ivy issues and the occasional falling down in the dirt, but it’s pretty non-hazardous,” Burks said.

There’s also the unique placement of the audience. Instead of a sea of faces diluted by the shining stage lights, the actors performing are confronted with an audience whose reactions can be clearly seen and interpreted.

“You can see everyone’s excited expressions, from smiles to people looking down at their phones and texting, so it’s different,” Burks said.

Even so, the picturesque backdrop always outclasses the minor inconveniences.

“I think that I’m spoiled now,” Mendeloff said. “When I watch a production of a Shakespeare play like ‘Midsummer’, or ‘As You Like It’ or a play that is set in nature and I see it … on a stage, I always feel really sorry for them. There’s just nothing like the real thing.”