`Woman' keeps its witticisms about it

400-year-old farce just as lively today

Theater Review

January 29, 2003|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Ben Jonson's 1609 comedy The Silent Woman has a surprise ending, and because the play is so rarely performed, it genuinely startles the audience. You can tell by the gasps.

Furthermore, when theatergoers leave Washington's Shakespeare Theatre - where The Silent Woman is receiving what is believed to be its professional American debut - they are met by posters in the lobby urging them not to spoil the surprise.

So I'm certainly not going to give it away here. But I will tell you this: More than halfway into his second decade at the helm, artistic director Michael Kahn has molded the Shakespeare Theatre into the closest thing this country has to Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company.

You get a strong sense of this when you see Kahn's Shakespearean productions. But it's blazingly clear when you see how he brings Jonson's largely unfamiliar text to rollicking life.

The Silent Woman, also known as Epicoene, focuses on a misanthropic, wealthy old bachelor named Morose, who cannot tolerate noise. Ted van Griethuysen's Morose pads around in thick gray socks, clothes his servants in sound-muffling quilts, and makes them reply to him by shaking their legs (an activity that Hugh Nees, as a servant called "Mute," turns into a jaunty little dance).

Determined to keep his nephew and sole heir, Dauphine - played by Bruce Turk as a wily, self-serving schemer - from inheriting his fortune, Morose decides to get married, if a suitably soft-spoken bride can be found. Staying a step ahead of him, however, Dauphine has trained a potential bride (ladylike Ricki Robichaux) to accede to all of Morose's wishes before the wedding, then torment him with loud companions as soon as the marriage vows are exchanged.

Jonson used this story to satirize a host of vices in Jacobean society - adultery, vanity and duplicity, along with greed. And, as was his frequent practice, he named his characters for their chief characteristics (besides Morose and Mute, there's a Madame Haughty and a Sir Amorous La Foole) or after animals.

Costume designer Murell Horton takes these names and runs with them. Floyd King's preening La Foole looks like an anthropomorphized Valentine, from his stiff lace ruff to his black coat, lined with quilted pink satin and decorated with red hearts. Gregg Almquist's Sir John Daw, in a jet black feather-trimmed collar, puffed breeches and hose, is indeed the embodiment of a jackdaw; he even moves his arms in a bird-like manner. And Nikki E. Walker's strutting Madame Centaur, in a huge bustle, fringed to the floor, and a blue wig that rises in two ear-like topknots, is an equine fashionista.

Like most of the women on stage, Walker wears knickers under her split skirt. Gender confusion is one of Jonson's themes in The Silent Woman. The ladies known as the "Collegiates" have the type of sexual voraciousness traditionally ascribed to men, and gentlemen like La Foole primp and doll themselves up in a manner usually associated with women.

The play is none too nice to women. Misogynistic wouldn't be too strong a term. But then, Jonson skewered just about everybody on stage - except conniving Dauphine. Presumably the playwright made an exception out of respect for the character's brilliant plotting. In the end, Dauphine gets the best of everyone - including the audience.

But while you won't admire anyone on stage, you can't help but admire the panache with which they are realized under Kahn's confident guidance. Besides van Griethuysen's wonderfully detailed performance (listen to him slurp after planting a first kiss on the lips of his seemingly compliant bride-to-be), other comic stand-outs include David Sabin and Nancy Robinette as a hard-drinking, hen-pecked husband and the wife who rules the roost; and Daniel Breaker and Scott Ferrara as Dauphine's swaggering, cold-hearted cronies, a pair who look and behave like dissolute rock stars with too much time on their hands.

Jonson didn't shirk from grand statements, and neither does Kahn. You may not always agree with - or warm to - the results, but there's a sharp, lively imagination underlying every choice. The result is that a largely forgotten 17th-century farce suddenly looks as up-to-date as reality TV. If Jonson were alive today, he'd probably be satirizing Joe Millionaire and The Bachelorette. He wouldn't even have to change the names.

Theater

What: The Silent Woman

Where: Shakespeare Theatre, 450 7th St. N.W., Washington

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; through March 9

Tickets: $15-$65

Call: 202-547-1122

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