The Hills of Fake Iowa, And The Deadly Effects Of Marriage

Francie Ford (Robin Goodrin Nordli) and George Page (Ted Deasy) learn about their wives (Gina Daniels, Terri McMahon) schemes to have their revenge on Senator John Falstaff. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

At long last, and after much (internal, completely unnoticed by other humans) agonizing on my part, Part III:

“I’ve never seen Christopher Liam Moore do anything – acting or directing – that I didn’t think was fantastic,” I said to my partner before we headed into the CLM-directed The Very Merry Wives of Windsor, Iowa. “Also, I’ve interviewed (Very Merry Wives writer) Alison Carey, and she’s brilliant, so I have hope for this play.”


I still think CLM usually kicks acting and directing butt (2010’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof should have won national awards), and I still believe Alison Carey is brilliant. Her ability to combine the script of Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor with contemporary English should win her some kind of adaptation/reinvention prize, at least in terms of language. But dear god, this play? This farce gone overboard? This parody without end? No.

Manager of the Come On Inn (Judith-Marie Bergan) tells Senator John Falstaff (David Kelly) about her prize pig. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Yes, Very Merry Wiveshas its funny moments. David Kelly as Senator John Falstaff makes for an amusingly venal politician who can turn just about anything to his advantage, and both Gina Daniels (Alice Ford) and Terri McMahon (Margaret Page) are wonderful as the wives Falstaff decides to woo.

At the press event the morning after VMW, Bill Rauch gently tried to suggest that the Windsor, Iowa, of the play is as mythical an Iowa as the England of Merry Wives. I get that most people involved in the project truly believe that.

But it’s lazy to go for easy laughs from a West (or East) Coast audience with jokes about corn, soy, John Deere, hogs, and quilting – not to mention the Iowa State Fair butter cow. As a matter of fact, what all these jokes have in common is that they sound quite a lot like the way out-of-state (and far out-of-region) journalists do when they descend upon Iowa for the presidential caucuses every four years. And every four years, I want to take my journalism peers and knock their heads together – because their lack of knowledge about and their condescension toward Iowa make them look ignorant.

I understand. It’s not new. People on the coasts believe that Iowans and other Midwesterners are the ignorant ones, that they’re hayseeds or hicks or what have you – people who don’t understand local food, or good bookstores, or whatever else coastal people believe they have that Midwesterners don’t have. But I left the Midwest, specifically Iowa City, Iowa, for the West Coast (mostly because of the far better weather and the breathtaking beauty of Oregon). And what did I end up with? A state that votes for a constitutional amendment banning marriage equality while my friends are all getting married in Iowa. D’oh.

Aside from that discussion, which is not going away, other things about Very Merry Wives bothered me – the constant punning (after a while grindingly sophomoric, but certainly in the vein of Shakespeare when he was writing this particular play) and the grating, not-quite-right jokes got on my nerves.

The Backhoes cheerleading squad practice for their gig at the Iowa State Fair. Ensemble. Photo by Jenny Graham.
(OMG – get it? GET IT? THE BACKHOES? Just in case you didn’t get it the first 12 times, we’ll hear it again and again!)

Details make the attempted farce less amusing. Let me tick off a few: Mullets aren’t in anymore in Iowa, especially not for women. I’ve seen a lot more chainsaw “art” in Oregon than I ever did in Iowa (remember, Oregon has a lot of trees; not exactly a big commodity on the prairie or the farm). If a farm family and a sports family kick back to have a beer together in Iowa, that beer probably isn’t going to come in glass bottles (thought at least it’s Miller High Life). Unless you’re right up on the border, Iowans do not sound like they’re extras from Fargo. Etc, etc., with a few things thrown in about hogs, cheerleaders (I can’t even … don’t get me started on that) the caucuses and how they actually work (and when they take place; long before the corn’s as high as it was in the set).

On the other hand, and to be fair, the butter cow … it’s almost impossible to parody. As we walked away from the Lizzie, my partner said to me, “As they said, it’s never just the butter cow. Remember the time when it was the Last Supper?” Yes, oh yes – that was one of the years I attended the Iowa State Fair. And seriously, what’s there to parody when you already have people remaking Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper OUT OF BUTTER? Sheer statement of fact would be enough.

But all of those things require knowledge of actual Iowa, and as Rauch said, this isn’t really Iowa – so why not just relax and enjoy the performances? I’d say it’s something about fieldwork, subcultures, the attitude of the main culture toward the subculture – these are things that writers think about, things I know I have walked a perhaps too-mean edge on at times in my writing life (sorry, Eugene Waldorf School). Partly because of a hollowness at its heart – present in the source material as well – Very Merry Wives is a beautifully and cleverly written, well-intentioned, splendidly produced, pretty, mostly well-performed piece that doesn’t make it out of the starting gate, much less into the final prize round, at the fair.

(Though I expect audiences will swarm it. Is it funny? Apparently. Can you take the kids? Sure, as long as your family isn’t homophobic. Are there poop jokes? God, yes.)

Suzi, what about marriage, damn it? Would you get there, already?

George Page (Ted Deasy) explains to his daughter, Anne (Tala Ashe), why he believes Slender Shallow is the girl for her. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

All right. So one of the running gags in Very Merry Wives is that the Page parents want their daughter, Anne, to marry a woman, so set are they on supporting Iowa’s marriage equality. Actually, no – they don’t support marriage equality; they support same-sex marriage and want their daughter to be a lesbian. One of the more tone-deaf moments is when Anne has to “come out as straight” to them – that’s just not funny yet, at least not to this queer person in the midst of a mostly straight audience. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

But marriage equality does have its perks – the main one being the equality part. Studies of same-sex marriages in the Netherlands, the first country to offer equal rights in marriage to opposite and same-sex couples, consistently find that one of the (no doubt terrifying to religious conservatives) strongest changes lies in the way that same-sex couples no longer feel like, and are no longer treated like, second-class citizens.

Margaret Page (Terri McMahon) and Alice Ford (Gina Daniels) compare text messages from Senator John Falstaff. Photo by Jenny Graham.

In the play, Alice Ford receives the same text from Senator Falstaff that the heterosexual Margaret Page also receives. She has to pause a moment to acknowledge that icky as the text is, it’s oddly touching that Falstaff considers her marriage and the Pages’ marriage equally ready to serve as cash cows for his campaign – and later, she says something similar about how Falstaff’s attempts to hook up with her mean that he sees her as an equal to Margaret, and her marriage as an equal to the Pages’ relationship. That’s a subtle point from Carey, and a good one.

Because of the overweening influence of those Greeks (to go back to Part 1 of this epic review series), Shakespeare liked to end his comedies with weddings, and Very Merry Wives is no exception – three weddings! Boom, let’s party.

Nor is As You Like It different. That play, which I like tremendously, ends abruptly and ridiculously with four simultaneous (heterosexual) weddings, the four couples reflecting perhaps the Four Seasons or Four Graces whom we also see in the scene, or even the four humors so prevalent as a belief in Shakespeare’s time.

But VMW addresses not only those getting married but those who already are married, and the ways they deal with suggestions of their partners’ (fictional) infidelities. The White Snake dealt in large part with a married couple keeping secrets from each other and the fallout of those secrets being discovered, and Troilus and Cressida deals not only with the titular character’s non-married partnering but with the result of Helen’s famous affair with Paris. Perhaps the most telling is Henry V, in which two royals must pretend to be in love – a relationship Shakespeare finds so boring he skips the wedding and moves right into its disastrous results. We all know what happens to the main characters in Romeo and Juliet.

And all of that leads me back to where I began this particular series of reviews: with Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella, a cautionary tale if there ever was one about what can happen within a relationship, within a marriage.

A wedding can be spectacular – but committed partnership and marriage?

That can maim … or even kill.

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