By Julie Cortez, PQ Monthly
“A marriage can be same-sex or unsame, but only same-soul marriage earns the name.”
Elizabethan English meets irreverent talk of sexting, butter cows, and lady-on-lady love in “The Very Merry Wives of Windsor, Iowa.” Set in a contemporary fictional Midwestern town, this loose adaptation of William Shakespeare’s comedy puts same-sex marriage on a pedestal, then makes it — and politicians, Iowans, Canadians, Germans, and golf-loving lesbians — the butt of its jokes.
Presented by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland through Oct. 13, this version of “Merry Wives” transforms one of English literature’s most popular rogues, Sir John Falstaff, into a failed presidential candidate looking to recoup his misused campaign funds by bilking the wives of Windsor, Iowa — a town that proudly and wholeheartedly embraces the marriage equality rights for which the state is famous. Falstaff’s attempts at seduction are directed at same-sex and “unsame” couples alike.
“I am an equal-opportunity seducer,” he confesses, “believing your marriage as worthy of plunder as another’s.”
Alison Carey, who wrote the play, says she’s heard from “shockingly few” who’ve been offended by the rather broad comedic brush with which she has painted the world of Windsor.
“Her voice as a playwright and an adaptor of Shakespeare is so powerful,” OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch says of Carey. “Her wit is razor sharp.” He admits he has indeed received a few complaints from miffed lesbians, Iowans, and Canadians in the “Merry Wives” audience as a result.
“I’ll sort of lay myself down with Falstaff and say I’m an equal opportunity offender,” Carey says. “It’s all done with an enormous amount of love and respect for people. In this lovely, self-realized community of Windsor, Iowa, you can be eccentric and you can be who you are and it’s open to all people who are willing to respect the identity and loves of other people. The intention is not to offend; the intention is to create joy.”
Rauch, who just so happens to be married to “Merry Wives” director Christopher Liam Moore, praises Carey’s “beautiful career-long commitment to LGBTQ issues in her writing.” Rauch would know; their careers paths have rarely diverged. He and Carey co-founded the Cornerstone Theater Company — which began as a traveling ensemble before settling in Los Angeles — when they were barely out of their Harvard graduation robes. Moore was also a founding member and Carey’s husband, Benajah Cobb, was Cornerstone’s technical director; now all four work at OSF.
Carey was a driving force behind Cornerstone’s signature approach to adapting classics to reflect specific contemporary communities. She examined the U.S. military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in 1994 by setting “Twelfth Night, or As You Were” on a naval base, and made a case for same-sex marriage in “As You Like It: A California Concoction” in 2006.
“Merry Wives” — Carey’s first adaptation for OSF — is greatly influenced by her happy disbelief that we’ve come so far in six years.
“I don’t think any of us in the world had any idea the conversation about gay marriage would move so quickly,” she says. “It seemed like this wacky dream.”
In “Merry Wives,” Carey has not made a case for anything; marriage equality is a celebrated fact of life in Windsor. She instead chose to “step over the conversation about whether gay marriage is good or bad — we’ve had that conversation — [and] to move into the place where the comic possibilities open up. Gay marriage is here; let’s just have some fun and make some jokes and not debate — just present. The idea of a world where gay marriage is not only accepted but really revered was an incredibly fun world to write about and a world that I believe in.”
“The Merry Wives of Windsor, Iowa” opened in June and will close Oct. 13. (That’s the same weekend as Southern Oregon Pride, by the way.) For information and tickets, visit osfashland.org/. And be sure to check out the September/October issue of PQ Monthly to have your heart melted by the decades-long love story of Christopher Liam Moore and Bill Rauch.