Director Aaron Elmore sprang a surprise on the cast of "The Merry Wives of Windsor" after rehearsals began. Not only would each actor play two parts, the second role would require bringing a four-foot-high puppet to life.
"The Merry Wives of Windsor" opens Friday night for a 12show, three-week run at McPhetres Hall. The comedy by William Shakespeare is a production of Juneau's Theatre in the Rough.
Many of the characters in "Merry Wives" are puppets and one is a teddy bear. They don't appear in every scene, but they do comprise half the cast.
Elmore built all the puppets. He's built far larger and more elaborate creations for productions such as "Tales of Ossian" and other Theatre in the Rough productions. But this play puts the actors on the spot in a different way - they project the character into the puppet.
"You become the puppet," said actor Zach Falcon, who plays the swaggering sidekick of the villain Falstaff and the aging Justice of the Peace Master Shallow - a puppet.
"The Merry Wives" asks the audience to simultaneously acknowledge and ignore the puppeteers as they perform.
"It's something we ask the audience to accept," Elmore said. "There's no attempt to make the actor neutral."
"It's not ventriloquism," Falcon said. "People tend to be very expressive."
That's an effect Elmore likes. "You get an appreciation for all that is going on."
Musician Bruce Simonson, who plays hurdy-gurdy in the play, said sometimes the puppets upstage their human counterparts. Simonson has built a traditional hurdy-gurdy, a stringed instrument that was played in England in Shakespeare's time.
"It's pre-Elizabethan," he said. "The lute and the hurdy-gurdy were pretty much the instruments of the day."
"Merry Wives" tells the story of a con man, the aging and errant knight Falstaff, who tries to seduce the two merry wives of the town of Windsor. They catch on to his tricks and plan a trick of their own to teach him a lesson.
Katie Jensen, who plays one of the two merry wives, called the play a mix of "I Love Lucy," the Marx brothers and Cirque de Soleil rolled together.
Of all of Shakespeare's plays, it is the only one that is set in his own time. It's also in his neighborhood, the village of Windsor about 20 miles from London.
"It's basically a straight comedy," said actor Guy Warren. "No one dies, but I suspect one character wishes he was dead by the end."
Many of the cast members were in Theatre in The Rough's most recent production, "Hamlet," and have been on Perseverance Theatre's stage as well.
Donice Gott and Mike Petersen are featured, and Pam Finley joins Jensen as the other merry Windsor wife. Ed Christian and Peter Freer are their jealous husbands. Elmore does triple duty as director, actor and puppeteer. Musician Nathan Bastuscheck also will perform.
"The Merry Wives of Windsor" opens at 7:30 p.m. Friday and runs until Nov. 10. It plays at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Sunday in McPhetres Hall at Fourth and Gold streets. Tickets are $14 in advance at Hearthside Books, $16 at the door, $8 for students and seniors, and $6 for kids under 12. A free preview is at 7:30 tonight.