The world of real estate, especially condos and co-ops, has its share of unique characters and universal conflict. In a way, it's not that different from a William Shakespeare play.
So it's not too surprising that a new production at Manhattan's Bryant Park of the Bard's classic comedy, The Merry Wives of Windsor, is given a contemporary update, with the action taking place at an Upper West Side co-op.
For those unfamiliar with The Merry Wives of Windsor or haven't read it since high school, the play, written supposedly in 1597, is about a fat knight named John Falstaff who, in financial straits, tries to woo Mistress Page and Mistress Ford, two rich married women. The ladies later find out about Falstaff's scheme and turn the tables by tricking and humiliating him. A subplot also involves Mistress Page's daughter Anne, who is being courted by three men but only loves one of them. The result is a comedy of errors that leads to misadventures and a happy ending.
In this updated version of the play, produced by Drilling Company Shakespeare, the main character of Falstaff is now a real estate hustler, with Mistress Page is portrayed as a tiger mother, and Mistress Ford an activist, according to a press release for the production.
“I was thinking of what job a modern Falstaff would have,” Hamilton Clancy, the artistic director for Drilling Company Theatrical Productions, tells the The Cooperator about the real estate angle for this theater production. “I was trying to think of who is always hustling for buck and who has to interact between people of all classes. High class and low class in a moment. Real estate agents seemed an obvious choice on the Upper West Side. They are all in suits and ties, but it's just as important to them to know the doorman.”
While the backdrop of today's Manhattan is dramatically different from a village in 15th century-England, the themes of The Merry Wives of Windsor are universal when it comes to commerce and relationships and the transactional nature of each of them.
“Everyone in this play is making a deal, trying to marry well or get a servant to do them a favor or get someone to sleep with them to get to their money,” says Clancy. On the Upper West Side neighborhoods there is the same kind of economy going on everyday.
“Falstaff imagines himself a modern-day Lothario,” he continues. “He has an oversized impression of himself. He's confident he can make any deal. If that has any similarities to any modern figures you could think of connected to real estate, I would say it's not a coincidence on our part. But rather than thinking of Falstaff as an impersonation of any modern figure, we've thought of him as a big supporter of businessmen who thrive on double talk.”
Even within the modern setting of a co-op, and the roles of the play's original characters reflecting this, the production, says Clancy, is faithful to what Shakespeare wrote. “We change an occasional reference here and there, Falstaff gets thrown in the Hudson [River] instead the Thames, for example. But we're doing this 400-year-old play and hoping , with this angle, it opens the play up a little to a modern audience."
This update of The Merry Wives of Windsor is also a reflection of the current times, in which urban neighborhoods replace villages, says Clancy. “So instead of thinking of the play as being about a village, we decided to think of it as being in a neighborhood. We've produced the play once before on the Lower East Side. Then we were looking at overtones of gentrification that was happening then down there. Now we were focused more on the characters in a day to day neighborhood.”
Then there's the audience to consider, which also factors into this modern update. “When we do Shakespeare in Bryant Park in New York City,” Clancy explains, “we take the attitude that there is literally a global audience who we are attempting to touch because we have people from all over the world in our audiences all the time because it's the city we live in and we're producing in a world famous destination in that city.
With real estate always being a hot-button issue involving conflicting interests, Clancy doesn't think of this production as a political statement but a form of satire. “I hope the audience will come away from the play with is a good time," he says. "We put it in a co-op on the Upper West Side to celebrate the unique villages we have right here on our own magical island and the wonderful array of characters they have in them.But mostly, we chose the setting to make it easier for folks to listen to the play and enjoy the comedy. What I hope most of all is that people will get a decent laugh with a better appreciation for this genius of this play and the valuable villages our own cosmopolitan neighborhoods, full of folks from all walks of life and parts of the world , can be in Manhattan.
The Merry Wives of Windsor, produced by Drilling Company Shakespeare, and presented by Bryant Park Presents, will run Fridays and Saturdays through June 3 at 7 p.m. at Bryant Park in midtown Manhattan. All shows free.
David Chiu is an associate editor at The Cooperator.