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Ricki Robichaux as Epicoene, Ted van Griethuysen as MoroseDecibelle Level
By Dorothy Chansky

Epicoene; or, The Silent Woman
By Ben Jonson

Shakespeare Theatre
450 7th NW, Washington, DC
Runs through March 9, 2003
Box Office (202) 541-1122

The Silent Woman was the name of a restaurant I used to pass on the way to work one summer in the early eighties. The eatery’s logo made clear why the titular female didn’t speak: she was headless.

Ben Jonson’s 1609 play is just as misogynistic as the restaurant logo. It is also funny, dark, stuffed with wordplay, and critical of nearly every social stratum within earshot. The current production at The Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, DC, directed by Michael Kahn, delivers Jonson’s cynical comedy as a big, bright visual confection that misses none of the verbal bite. “Silence in a woman,” opines one of the play’s more outrageous egomaniacs, “is like speech in a man.” Of course, the speaking men don’t win many prizes for sympathetic utterance. “All discourses but mine own afflict me,” proclaims the most powerful of the several alpha males, who then proceeds to assert his authority by forcing servants and tradespeople to traffic in mime while he indulges his logorrhea.

Although Jonson was Shakespeare’s contemporary, this work feels both older and newer than much of his better known rival's. Drawing directly on commedia dell’arte character types, Jonson wrote comedies of humour. “Humour” here is not primarily about laughs but rather about bodily chemical composition according to Renaissance medical science. A balance of four--blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile--determined one’s character. In this play, old Morose (played by a delightfully dyspeptic Ted van Griethuysen) is afflicted with a predominance of black bile, the source of melancholy. Hence his name and behavior. He’s also a “pantaloon”--a character type descended from the commedia’s Pantalone, an old miser who typically craves (or has) a much younger wife, or who wants to marry off a young daughter to a geezer with money rather than to the youthful swain who’s won her heart. Morose can’t stand noise and also can’t stand the thought of his nephew inheriting the family fortune. His plan is to wed a young and very quiet wife, produce an heir quickly, and thwart all competitors to that heir by cowing his spouse and disinheriting his nephew. The question in Pantalone plays is never who’s going to come out on top. It’s how the old crank is going to be outwitted.

So much for “older.” The “newer” feeling arises from the many ways in which this play is a forerunner to Restoration comedy. Morose’s nephew, Dauphine Eugenie (Bruce Turk), is one of a trio of young men about town who assume that the world is their oyster: fops are there to be tricked and laughed at, women are there for a combination of sex and ridicule, and money is what makes life livable. You may have noticed that Dauphine’s name is feminine. This is not a mistake but rather an indication that he is the most malleable, and ultimately the wiliest, of his smart set. Truewit (played by an assured Daniel Breaker) and Clerimont (Scott Ferrara, looking like a rock star) debate the merits of artifice over nature when it comes to beauty. Dauphine has a bit of both, with a slightly effeminate demeanor that enables the others to think they're leading him around (artifice) while he’s all the while hatching brilliant schemes to thwart his crabby uncle (natural intellect).

Epicoene, the titular Silent Woman (Ricki Robichaux), is relentlessly submissive and demure. She flatters the intelligence of the preposterously pretentious "knight," Sir John Daw (played by an outré Gregg Almquist) and willingly submits to the humiliating interrogation Morose insists on as a pre-nuptial test. Then, having passed with flying and barely audible colors, she is married and, within moments, finds voice and mettle, and all hell breaks loose. Abetted by the determined Dauphine and the mischievous Truewit, and aided by a trio of “collegiates”--women who run about town seeking sex and wit minus the freight of husbands--the Silent Woman pushes Morose’s back to the wall.

Here, the wall happens to be padded. Set designer Andrew Jackness uses color and texture to reinforce the ways in which everything about these characters is over the top, even though the mechanism of the plot is planned to within an inch of its life. (John Dryden called The Silent Woman “the pattern of a perfect play,” and Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary that it was “the best comedy, I think, that was ever wrote.”) Morose can’t stand noise, which he combats, according to the text, with quilts over the outside door and “a huge turban of nightcaps on his head, buckled over his ears.” Jackness extends this conceit with a twenty-five-foot-tall living room whose walls are covered with tufted, stuffed muslin. Murrell Horton’s costumes feature a pile of nightcaps with tassels swinging, patterns clashing, and a leather belt strapped under Morose’s chin to keep the mini-mountain in place. Clerimont’s plush, chic digs feature three walls of shiny, leaf-green, plastic tile. In the side walls are Baroque doors in peacock blue while the central wall frames a huge double door of bright lemon yellow. John Daw’s ruby-red study has floor-to-ceiling shelves of showy leather volumes with his own writings tacked up everywhere. (Don’t ask how he gets to the top shelves.) In a niche over the doorway is a bust of himself, with a deliciously self-satisfied grin.

All the elements of this production emphasize fun, although the text is as damning and didactic as it is insouciant and sexy. The show is beautifully spoken, lucidly staged, and superbly paced. The question is whether it is as contemporary as its makers seem to think. The program notes and publicity telegraph “don’t worry," as if the driving force behind the whole project were the assurance that the play is easily accessible and relevant.

Kahn told The New York Times that the targets of Jonson's satire "aren't really so different from what we might have fun with today." The photo on the program, the theater's Web site, and the production's study guide show the title character looking like she's just been goosed and towering over two cowering males. It's clear, though (from the jawline and foot, if not the pose itself), that she is a man in drag. This image suggests that the cross-dressed actor should come as a shock, that this is "what we might have fun with today." Unfortunately, though, the "fun" stays on the level of smirk and smarm, never swelling into the sort of polymorphous perversity that the play really needs to hit hard today. Why not cross-gender-cast more than the obvious character, for instance? Why not go for that broadly damning punch (wholly in the spirit of Jonson)? Part of Jonson's point is that boys will be girls and girls will be boys so long as cross-gendered behavior serves their craven needs. By treating the body of only a single player as a source of titillation and curiosity, Kahn safely located his gender- and power-critique in the predictable, conservative realm of the naughty. In a play that's all about self-serving sanctimoniousness, the critique has to be broader than that--literally all over the place. (The only hint of this is in the bodices that male and female characters wear, which are all of the same cut.)

Possibly Kahn, like Jonson, shares an anti-audience prejudice of sorts, believing that genuine social critique would cost his company at the box office. This production is cautiously billed as the first-known professional American mounting of Epicoene. Kahn says he discovered the piece in the early 1970s but tabled it, as he told the Times, “until we had an audience that would come see less familiar plays.” His assumption, though, seems to be that, willing or not, no one interested in seeing the play has read it. Hence the effort to keep the ending a secret through the action, even though the advertising and publicity blatantly give it away.

Jonson is still powerfully present, of course, if only because of the clarity of the performances. The “collegiates,” for instance, assert their right to visit Bedlam for amusement lest they be left forsaken beldames bereft of admirers to make anagrams of their names. This zingy play on "anagram," "Bedlam," and "beldame" must have been clear even to those who hadn't read the text. The actors made it read as a kind of Scrabble in action. Later, Morose is done in by two tradesmen tricked out as a judge and a parson (it takes both church and state to get the divorce for which he finally begs on his knees). They spend a hilarious scene spewing Latin phrases with attitude, and you don’t need to know much more than ante and post copulam to follow the tomfoolery, which plays like vaudeville.

Jonson would have been pleased enough to be collecting royalties on a new production (he loved recognition) but probably irritated at the riot of colors, outsized walls, and moveable scenery at work. This is, remember, the playwright who famously broke with Inigo Jones when the latter’s work as designer put him in a position to call many of the shots in the Jones/Jonson collaboration on court masques. Jonson considered audiences an impediment to real artistry, and his two prologues to this play are ever-so-slightly bossy reminders that what he’s written will come back to haunt his listeners (if they only listen well enough) but that there’s no "libel"--his own defensive word in the second prologue--in it. Actually, that depends. Originally, Jonson was answering an accusation by a member of the King's family who thought she saw too much of herself in one of the characters. Today, as The Silent Woman proposes that wives who seek amusement independent of their husbands assert “hermaphroditic authority,” men who love their wives well and faithfully are “asses,” and the best wife is a submissive “heifer,” haunting works in some “unauthorized” ways. Maybe "libel" is too strong a word, but the happy ending does involve the ideal woman vanishing into thin air. If I find that less than satisfying, it’s no doubt due (in Morose's immortal phrase) to my “Amazonian impudence.”

(Dorothy Chansky is Assistant Professor of Theater at the College of William and Mary.)



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