'The Silent Woman': Raucous Entertainment
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 28, 2003; Page C01
Okay people, settle down. I said settle! You up there -- in the neck ruffles so outrageous you make Eustace Tilley seem underdressed -- where do you think you're going with that chamber pot? And you, yes, you -- the one with the decolletage out of a Madonna video: Could you PLEASE stop all that grinding in the lap of that young man in the wig?
Just to clarify: "Animal House, 1609" is not the title of the ribald and ripping new production at Shakespeare Theatre. The antics only seem to be patterned after a gang of frat pledges with diseased minds. The name of this lunatic farce is "The Silent Woman," by that Elizabethan bad boy Ben Jonson. Under the expert tutelage of Michael Kahn, the actors are transformed into Jonson's willing accomplices, merry pranksters all in an evening of endless gibes and smirks.
Kahn, the theater's artistic director, had long wanted to stage this neglected work by Shakespeare's contemporary, best known as the author of "Volpone." It's a gratifying resuscitation, and it gives you newfound respect not only for Jonson but also for other underappreciated geniuses. Who knew, for example, that the Farrelly brothers ("Dumb and Dumber") had classical roots? "The Silent Woman," after all, makes no pretense of insight into the human condition. In its wall-to-wall zaniness, it sneers at everyone and everything. You can even imagine a scene long ago in a pub, after the very first performance of "Othello," when Jonson might have sent a pint of ale and a note over to Shakespeare's table: "Will. Lighten up. Ben."
Jonson's humor often aims low; his language hits none of the Bard's elevating iambic heights. If someone, somewhere in Shakespeare declares an intention to "make water," it couldn't possibly be with the delirious panache of Jonson's hyper-fop, Sir Amorous La Foole. All through the evening, in fact, the joking explores territory you might have thought was taboo until, say, the 1970s: birth control, divorce, bisexuality. And Sally Jessy thought she was ahead of the curve.
"The Silent Woman" was lampooning these subjects, and many others, four centuries ago, and it's one of the rewards of Kahn's production to find that many of the jokes still land. Mind you, the evening has a few dry patches early on. It takes a long time to fire up the comic engine of the plot. And Kahn and his gifted design team are almost too clever for the play's good. From time to time, the actors are upstaged by the wit of Andrew Jackness's madcap green vinyl sets and the costumes by Murell Horton, so wild they could have been hallucinated.
You can enjoy this production even if you tire of all the "whithers" and "thithers," for Kahn has pulled together an A-team of actors for the occasion. They float and flutter through the comedy like captive species in an aviary: strutting flamingos and preening swans, simpering penguins and brooding owls.
The story, such as it is, revolves around the hoodwinking of an old man, Morose (Ted van Griethuysen), whose ear for the sounds made by others is so sensitive that his chairs (and servants) have to be padded from head to foot. A potential mate is found for him in the person of Epicoene (Ricki Robichaux), renowned for the attribute Morose treasures above all others: soft-spokenness.
Of course, in farce, a desire for silence can only mean that a cacophony is in store, and no matter how diligently he tries to muffle the world, Morose is set upon by all manner of annoyance and contrivance, from the dandyisms of La Foole (a nifty Floyd King) to the sneaky ministrations of a trio of young plotters (Scott Ferrara, Bruce Turk and, in a smashing Shakespeare Theatre debut, Daniel Breaker). Into the proceedings are introduced (for no reason in particular), a hard-drinking sea captain (David Sabin) and his shrewish better half (Nancy Robinette); a conniving barber (John Livingstone Rolle); a dopey pseudo-intellectual (Gregg Almquist) and a clutch of back-stabbing harpies, led by a sublime Naomi Jacobson.
Horton, the costume designer, is given the opportunity to comment lavishly on the characters she's dressing, and the gusto with which she has tackled the assignment is infectious; King gets entrance applause, a tribute as much to his get-up as to his local profile. He's gussied up like a gift box from Victoria's Secret, all bows and hearts and prissy curls. (His neck adornment gives him the look of a malignant daisy.) Jacobson and the other flirtatious 17th-century "It" girls (Nikki E. Walker and Amanda Whiting) are ready for their S&M version of "You Gotta Have a Gimmick" from "Gypsy," and Robinette models a gown that Carol Burnett's dresser once might have fashioned out of the drapes in a movie spoof.
Jackness, meanwhile, has almost as much fun with the toy-box scenery of "Silent Woman." The plastic walls of the conspirators' lair unfold to reveal libraries and dining rooms, and Morose's house is padded with what could very well be the linings of shearling coats. It all heightens the sense of the superficial world in which Jonson's characters cavort, a place where no higher talents exist than the abilities to make an unholy scene, to upset the neighbors, to wreak havoc with convention. (In another nice touch, the play itself concludes, with typical Elizabethan verve, in a song, stirringly set by composer Catherine MacDonald.)
In such a noisy environment, it's not easy for one clarion voice to be heard, but Breaker comes through loud and clear in his standout performance as the aptly named Truewit. In manner and diction, this young actor is primed for the classics. He handles his large and pivotal role here with charismatic aplomb. Hugh Nees plays the clown cannily as Morose's tiptoeing servant; van Griethuysen is amusingly put upon as the old crank; and Robichaux makes for a becoming and multifaceted fiancee. It's also a treat to watch Robinette spar with the blustery Sabin, playing a character named Otter. (Funny: There was also a guy named Otter in "Animal House.")
The director gleefully puts his company through its paces; as if to ensure that the proceedings never rise above the sophomoric, he concludes Act 1 with a food fight. Which feels right. You can sense the unbridled spirit of the author in every toss of the dinner rolls.
"The Silent Woman," by Ben Jonson. Directed by Michael Kahn. Lighting, Christopher Akerlind. With Wyatt Fenner. Approximately 2 1/2 hours. Through March 9 at the Shakespeare Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW. Call 202-547-1122 or visit www.shakespearetheatre.org