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John Lamb, Published April 23 2012

Making Wahpeton 'Merry': Director swaps locales, sexes for Shakespeare classic

FARGO – The work of Shakespeare is nothing new to The Stage at Island Park.

But the theater, formerly known as the Fargo-Moorhead Community Theatre, has never seen anything like what took the stage this past weekend.

Director Maggie Olson has turned the Bard of Avon into the Bard of Richland County. Olson adapted Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor” into “The Merry Wives of Wahpeton.” The comedy continues its two-week run on Thursday.

Olson started with an idea to re-write the language of Shakespeare’s play to fit into modern day North Dakotan instead of Elizabethan England. The Stage’s Technical Director Jeff Nibbe suggested keeping the language and instead changing the setting to modern day Wahpeton.

“It seems to be a play that lends itself to local adaptations,” says Charlene Hudgins, noting that she’s heard of different locations around the country giving it a regional spin.

Olson thought Wahpeton was comparable to Windsor as a good-sized town that is not a major metropolis. To help transfer the essence of Wahpeton to her production, the Moorhead woman made a number of research trips to the North Dakota city of about 8,000.

“I found the community members to be jovial and fun and not opposed to poking fun at themselves,” she says.

That said, Olson wants people to know her revision doesn’t poke fun at the city.

“Wahpeton is portrayed as a town with fun people, up for a good laugh, but fun, honest people,” she says.

The set shows some of the city’s color, like a representation of the Prairie Rose Chapel, the entrance to the Chahinkapa Zoo and “Wahpper,” the world’s largest catfish, hanging above the stage.

The actors are dressed in contemporary clothes and one even wears an “I once lived in Fargo. Really.” T-shirt.

While Olson wanted to keep the original language, some of the script’s dialogue was outdated or too hard to comprehend.

In Shakespeare’s original, Sir Hugh Evans says, “I will make an end of my dinner; there’s pippins and cheese to come.”

Instead of letting people wonder what pippins are (they’re apples), she opted for a re-write with more Midwestern fare: “I’m heading back to dinner, there’s coffee and bars to come.”

Olson also used regional crops like sugar beets to replace food in lines like,“I’d rather be set in the earth and bowled to death with parsnips” or “as crestfallen as a dried pear.”

“I’m sure Shakespeare is rolling in his grave, but we have lots of fun.”

Another spin to the Stage’s take on “Merry Wives” is that Hudgins plays the starring role of the bloated blowhard Sir John Falstaff.

The comedy opens with Falstaff arriving in Wahpeton broke. He eyes up two wealthy married women for courting. It doesn’t take long for the “Merry Wives” to see through his game and turn the tables, setting off a series of funny run-ins with not-so-brave knights and the husbands, including one scene in with Falstaff dresses like a woman to escape.

“There are three filters, because I’m a woman playing a man playing a woman. All the reactions there make a crazy scene,” Hudgins explains.

“She puts Shakespeare’s gender roles on their head,” Olson says, referring to Elizabethan theater where men played all roles, even the female ones.

Noting that Shakespeare “doesn’t have a plethora of good female roles,” Hudgins, jumped at the chance to be in one of the few plays with a couple of bigger women’s roles.

So she was surprised when Olson asked her to read for Sir John.

“Yeah, right. Like that’s going to happen,” Hudgins recalls thinking of the proposed gender switch. “But it gave me permission to be kind of crazy in the audition because I didn’t think she was serious about casting a woman in the role. And boy was I surprised when she did … I just let myself have fun with it and that read to Maggie as what she wanted to see on stage.”

If you go

What: “The Merry Wives of Wahpeton”

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday – Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday

Where: The Stage at Island Park, 333 4th St. S., Fargo

Info: Tickets from $6 for children to $16 for adults. (701) 235-6778.


Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533