Ben Jonson’s “The Silent Woman” is a historically significant piece of buffoonery that enthralled 17th- and 18th-century audiences. A few centuries later it registers as a mildly amusing period piece. Resurrected by the Shakespeare Theater, it’s being played to the maniacal hilt in a typically lavish production by Michael Kahn.
Kahn, the Shakespeare Theater’s artistic director, has yearned for 30 years to produce Jonson’s daring broadside against English society. Written in 1609 and entitled “Epicoene, or The Silent Woman,” the play remained a standard of dark comedy for more than 100 years but has since slipped into obscurity. Kahn is presenting the play’s first known professional American production.
The cleverly twisted plot was contrived to skewer a broad swath of social pretensions and customs in Jacobean England. Hypocrisy, venality and marriage are just some of the topics lampooned here. Women take a particularly vicious drubbing.
The plot spins frenetically around an elderly bachelor’s desire to marry and thus deprive his nephew and heir of his inheritance. The bachelor, Morose (Ted Van Griethuysen), is so averse to noise that he covers his house with mattresses, and he selects his wife because she appears to be shy and untalkative. But a circus of pranksters, fops and other quirky denizens turns the scheme upside down. Suffice it to say that almost none of the players are really who they pretend to be, which is precisely Jonson’s larger message.
To be sure, lines and situations that were uproariously funny to period audiences, and even got Shakespeare’s contemporary in hot water with royalty, aren’t appreciated today. Kahn has clearly tried hard, perhaps too hard, to compensate by cranking up the clownishness full tilt.
“Woman” is a feast for the eyes. Andrew Jackness’ wonderful set, much like the characters, is a veritable chameleon of changing colors and personalities. The stage is dominated by a gaudy boxlike structure that is twisted and opened to showcase each scene. Windows and doors seemingly pop out of nowhere.
Murell Horton’s luxurious costumes are a magical melange of lace, feathers and hose in every conceivable color. Outlandish coats and dresses scream volumes about the pampered inhabitants of Jonson’s time.
Floyd King is delightfully over the top as the foppish La Foole. Van Griethuysen, clad in enormous slippers and cushioned night coat, is every bit the demented bachelor. David Savin is just right as the battered husband to his effectively shrewish wife, Nancy Robinette. But Scott Ferrara and Daniel Breaker are tiresome as the two tricksters.