- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 1, 2003

The spirit of the whoopee cushion, joy buzzer and squirting flower have goosed things up at the Shakespeare Theatre in artistic director Michael Kahn's production of Ben Jonson's elaborate 1610 farce, "The Silent Woman."

Raucous and raunchy, this contemporary of Shakespeare may not have the Bard's knack with the iamb, but Jonson is mad about the bawd. As you listen in on the characters chattering away about birth control, sexual technique, old goatishness and bad breath, you might think you were watching some lubricious reality TV show an episode of "Blind Date," say, or "Dismissed" if it weren't for the doublets and hose. And the wit.

The fun starts before an actor even opens his mouth.

Andrew Jackness has fashioned an acid trip of a set, decked out in apple-green padded vinyl squares, electric blue doors and hot pink furniture. Austin Powers would feel right at home here, although his teeth would have felt more at home among the original 1610 cast.

Costumer Murrell Horton outfits a trio of young knights Ned Clerimont (Scott Ferrara), Truewit (Daniel Breaker, combining gorgeous diction and stage presence in an impressive local debut), and Sir Dauphine (Bruce Turk) in tight brocade pants, ruffly shirts and close-cut velvet jackets that recall '60s rock star dandies. The Lizard King, were he around today, would definitely want Mr. Horton as his tailor.

Similarly, a trio of groupies calling themselves The Collegians Haughty (Naomi Jacobson), Centaur (Nikki E. Walker) and Mavis (Amanda Whiting) would put Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera to shame with their beyond-skintight corsets, satin britches and distinctive bustles. Centaur's elaborate satin and tasseled caboose, for example, twitches like the rump of an Arabian. All shiny lips and skin, they are fantasy girls with improbable dimensions.

There are sight gags galore in other costumes, as well.

Sir Amorous La Foole (the ever-fabulous Floyd King), a fop who is a legendary Lothario in his own mind, makes his entrance in a black quilted swing coat lined in pink (with the word "Amorous" spelled out in fuchsia sequins) that looks like the entire set of "Grease" crammed into one outfit. His nemesis, Sir John Daw (Gregg Almquist), is a melancholy poet draped in Goth black.

It's so much fun looking at "The Silent Woman" that you could forget there is a plot, but there is just enough of one. It is the story of Morose (Ted van Griethuysen, sheer perfection as a crabby codger), a man so averse to noise that his servant Mute (Hugh Nees, an absolute scream) has to wear swaddling clothes and communicate in a language that is half ballet, half leg-thumping.

Morose connives to marry Epicoene (Ricki Robichaux), a "silent woman" who appears blissfully soft-spoken, in order to gyp his nephew, Sir Dauphine, out of a hefty inheritance. Shortly after the (whispered) "I do's," Epicoene turns out to not only have quite a mouth on her but a strong will to match.

Poor Morose is as miserable as Ebeneezer Scrooge on Christmas Eve after Epicoene demonstrates what it is like to be a human without a voice. No matter what the circumstances, Jonson seems to be saying, a woman will be heard, and, if the men know what is good for them, they will listen.

The plot is a mere pretext for comeuppances of all stripes. Practically everyone in the play is duped, either through the machinations of another character, or, in the case of Morose, through his own foolhardiness. This gives the production a feeling of good-natured joy, as all are the butt of a joke at some point or another, and every character is shown up to be either vain, a fool, or a bit of both.

The humor should come with a parental warning sticker, permeated as it is with double-entendres, sexual innuendo, and frank boudoir talk. For those of the frat-house persuasion, Jonson did not omit the drunk comedy, supplied by David Sabin as Tom Otter, a hard-drinking former sea captain henpecked by his wife (Nancy Robinette, superb as the aging coquette without a cause).

In his direction, Mr. Kahn keeps his sights squarely on the bedroom, barroom and bathroom, refusing to be distracted by more elevated concerns. His purpose, after all, is not high art, but low comedy. To achieve that, Mr. Kahn has assembled a cast of fine comedic actors and just let them rip, and they ham it up without shame. Something tells me they didn't need a lot of coaxing.

"The Silent Woman" has rarely been staged in the past 100 years and never in America. It was a long wait, but Jonson's bawdy, witty sendup of snobs and slobs was worth it.


***1/2

WHAT: "The Silent Woman" by Ben Jonson

WHERE: The Shakespeare Theatre, 450 7th St. NW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through March 9.

TICKETS: $15 to $65

PHONE: 202/547-1122

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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