‘Merry Wives’ actresses put themselves in characters’ shoes

Imagine a modern-day Falstaff in your DMs
‘Merry Wives’ actresses put themselves in characters’ shoes
Photo by Emily Morrison-Weeks
Sarah Z. Johnson (left) and Colleen Murphy scheme together in “Merry Wives of Windsor.”

May I have your attention for a moment, ladies? Try to imagine that you’ve looked down at your smartphone and noticed, to your horror and dismay, that some bloated Lothario has suddenly slid into your DMs. You turn to share this with your best friend, who’s sipping a glass of wine next to you at the bar. You quickly discover that she’s gotten the exact same message from the same playa.

That’s the plot setup, more or less, of Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” Well, minus the smartphones and social media platforms. Blowsy Sir John Falstaff sends the same love letter to Mistress Ford and Mistress Page, aiming to get his grubby paws on their husbands’ bank accounts but unaware that they’re best pals who share everything. They decide to pay back his clownish romantic hubris by making a total ass of him.

If it happened to you, would you do the same?

We put the question to Colleen Murphy and Sarah Z. Johnson, the actors who’ll be playing Mistress Page and Mistress Ford in Madison Shakespeare Co.’s production of “Merry Wives,” beginning tomorrow night — Friday, July 26 — and running through Sept. 3 at the Edgewood College Terrace.

Luckily for all the modern Falstaffs out there, neither woman is quite as vengeful as the character she plays.

“I’d tell my husband right away,” says Johnson. “It would be so hilariously funny. He probably wouldn’t think it was so funny, though.”

Murphy, who’s been married for more than 40 years and is decidedly not a social media user, says she’d be amused — and also offended — to receive a chain proposition.

“To say that I would be shocked is an understatement,” she says. “It would be tempting to take revenge. But in this day and age of litigation, it might not be prudent. But it would sure be intriguing and titillating to contemplate that.”

Like Murphy, Johnson is not interested in exacting revenge on a theoretical Falstaff. In fact, she almost feels sorry for the actual Falstaff she and Murphy flummox in the play. Almost.

“At the end of the play, the public shaming is over the top,” she says. “But then I think about watching the scene where he’s talking with Master Ford in disguise, and he’s trying to sell off my character for sex. That’s usually enough to make me forget any sympathy.”

Both Johnson and Murphy appreciate the ways in which “Merry Wives” emphasizes the importance of close female friendship, something Murphy says is critical for women, whether they’re in Elizabethan-age England or 1980s-era Florida, the time and place in which director Francisco Torres has set MSC’s production.

“In the play, their friendship is a strong bond. They’re more like sisters than friends,” she notes. “They’re sympathetic to each other, and there are things you can’t discuss with your husband to the degree you can discuss with your girlfriends.”

Aaron R. Conklin covers the Madison-area theater scene for madisonmagazine.com.