Epicene or The Silent Woman
nytheatre.com review by Ed Malin
May 27, 2010
Epicene by Ben Jonson is a bawdy play to begin with. I was quite excited when I saw it is part of (re:)Directions Theatre Company's Anybody But Shakespeare Classics Festival (alongside the work of Gozzi, Goethe, Marlowe, and more). When I saw and heard what RTC did with Epicene, I was quite pleased.
Jonson was in his day a more successful colleague of Shakespeare. He showed the world that plays were worthy of publication. Epicene, Or The Silent Woman was written in 1609.
This play came out of Jacobean England. Surprisingly, it is presented with the costumes (by David Withrow) and soundtrack of the Ragtime era, but this turns out to be a good match. As the play shows, the Renaissance was full of inquiry into science and the usual sexual debauchery and legal scheming. The early 20th century was also brimming with advances, with women's suffrage one of the issues bubbling beneath the surface of society, and at the same time with rebellion against intellectualism. In this play, women and men court each other, humiliate each other, and in the end all are duped. Fans of Jonson's Volpone, where the characters are reduced to the level of animals as they try to steal an old man's inheritance, will appreciate similar hues in Epicene. Characters are named for their traits, such as Sir Amorous LaFoole, Morose, Madam Haughty, and Sir John Daw, called Jack Daw.
There is no set designer credited. The set is great, though. Instead of doorways there are two translucent screens. Entering characters are silhouetted there, giving an indication of their personalities. At one point, the ladies retire and their silhouettes pantomime a seduction scene. Lighting designer Tim Kaufman is to be commended.
The plot is simple: a bitter man called Morose has found a quiet woman named Epicene to marry. In doing so he will disinherit his nephew Dauphine. Dauphine and his friends Truewit and Clerimont come to the wedding party, where Epicene also meets some pretentious, fan-wielding women who call themselves "Collegiates"; together they make quite a lot of noise after all. Ultimately, Morose does not get what he wants and Dauphine is happy.
The enormous cast of 12, as directed by Tom Berger, is full of life. Robert Gonzalez, Jr. plays Morose with enthusiasm and a turban. Michael Kirby as Sir Dauphine Eugenie, Christopher Norwood as Ned Clerimont, and Josh Odsess-Rubin as Truewit are animated as they quietly lay traps for others. Michael-Alan Read as Jack Daw battles with Sir Amorous LaFoole (Jon Cantor) over who is brainier, sometimes bringing down the house. The play would not be balanced without the friendly standoffishness of the Collegiates: Caitlin McColl as Madam Haughty, Victoria Miller as Madam Centaure, Gina Marie Jamieson as Mistress Dol Mavis, and Lucy Gillespie as Mistress Otter. Kathryn Elizabeth Lawson plays several butler-boy parts and contributes a beautiful singing voice. And who could forget Sarah Knittel as Epicene, who sheds her shyness and cuts the men down to size in a way that became more mainstream during the Restoration.
Right after intermission there is a wonderfully choreographed number, including a duel which ends in mutual fright.
I won't give away the ending but something hidden is revealed in a very unusual way which makes the marriage quite awkward. Bravo to RTC for reviving this play with added shock value.