For those unaccustomed to it, opera can be like listening to a foreign film with no subtitles. The setting of Cal State Fullerton’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” a colorful mash of 1950s kitsch and Shakespearean wit, demonstrates enough clarity in its staging that even those whose only experience with the genre is with “Looney Tunes’” “What’s Opera, Doc?” will find something to engage with.
The most striking aspect of the production, besides the impeccable performances of a noteworthy ensemble, is the aesthetic, which brings to mind the crooked suburbias of Tim Burton with the color scheme of a Dr. Seuss illustration. The set is both eye-catching and clear in its intention.
While it is far removed from The Bard’s original work, it tells much about the cast of characters without having to say a word. When the plot of mistaken infidelity and playful lust begins to unfurl, the houses that appear to have been plucked straight from the 1950s immediately set an environment where sexuality is constrained into strictly monogamous pairings.
The relative wholesome image of suburbia is what makes Falstaff, whose first appearance features him chasing the skirt of an innocent schoolgirl, an anomaly. It is impressive how the change in era works to the production’s benefit instead of feeling like a gimmick or cheap attempt at updating a classic. In comparison to a production of “Much Ado About Nothing” on campus a few years back which put Shakespeare in a 1990s shopping mall, this is a far more organic and thoughtful fit.
The operatic elements blend very well with the decor of Windsor Estates. Light whimsical tones flit from the orchestra as the Windsor neighbors make their entrances, an extended sequence that features no singing but plenty of character building. By the time the singing begins, the lecherous Falstaff and the plotting wives of the estate are already fleshed out through a dialogue-less opening that features the play’s ensemble.
The variety of locations is remarkable for a student production, particularly during the second act, in which the stage transitions from three distinct locations: a Tiki tavern filled with senior citizens, the estate and a forest which becomes haunted with amateur performers in costume. The visuals helped audiences whose ears may not have been trained for the tenors and bases of opera.
The story follows Shakespeare’s plot with a few colorful additions. Creative use of Tupperware and the dismemberment of a flamingo lawn ornament set it firmly in the middle of the 20th century.
It is a shame that the casting of Falstaff on the final April 15 performance could have unfortunate implications when seen within the context of the implied time period.
The opera’s finale, where a African-American Falstaff has been led into the woods by two suburban women so that the entire town can give him an incredible fright is made unsettling when put into a historical context. On the cusp of the Civil Rights Movement, an African-American being lured into the woods to be punished feels problematic.
Despite these brief moments of discomfort, the cast was uniformly great and the staging of scenes was imaginative.
While it is unclear if the performance will create new fans of the opera, its light tone and sexual innuendos make it a far cry from the tragedy and melodrama that is so often associated with operatic works.
Unless, of course, they star Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd.