The fair sex?
Epicene or The Silent Woman
Although it’s Sunday night, one building on the University of Nevada, Reno campus is abuzz. Music blares, and several young men sit around on folding tables, bobbing in time to the music. Three of them are wearing dresses. They’re about to begin the dress rehearsal for Nevada Repertory Company’s Epicene or The Silent Woman.
The word Epicene (originally spelled Epicoene) means “sexless, possessing qualities of both genders or effeminate.” Old Ben Jonson was ahead of his time in writing this play. First performed in 1609, Epicene‘s themes feel remarkably modern.
Here’s the story: Morose (played here by Scott House) is a grumpy old man who can bear no sound but his own voice. He lives in a padded home and forces his servants to communicate in sign language. Morose suspects that his nephew, Dauphine Eugenie (played by Scott D. F. Reeves), is ridiculing him to others. Which, of course, he is. Morose therefore threatens to disinherit his nephew, opting to marry a woman, Epicene (Nick Nealon), who is rumored never to speak, because he believes that bearing his own heir with this woman will allow him to disinherit his terrible nephew. As it turns out, Dauphine has gotten wind of Morose’s plan, and with his friends, Truewit (Ryan E. Palomo) and Clerimont (Drew Simbeck), has devised a plot to prevent losing his inheritance. Once married, Epicene turns out to speak after all, and she drives Morose crazy with not only her own chatter but also with that of her friends (John J. Adams, Nicholas Stanton and Doug Milliron), who loiter in their home. Morose goes mad from the noise and agrees to all of Dauphine’s demands, if only the young man can figure out a way to annul this marriage. Dauphine unmasks Epicene, who is actually a boy, and part of Dauphine’s wicked plot. The marriage is annulled, and everyone is happy.
It can be confusing. Even English majors struggle with Elizabethan English. Even during this rehearsal, I kept asking myself, “Wait, what just happened?” But once I decided to let the story wash over me and work itself out, it did.
Nevada Rep’s version is performed as Jonson intended—with an all-male cast. From Some Like It Hot to Tootsie, when men dress up as women, it’s always funny. When these young men wear bustles, skirts and corsets, they physically change. They purse their lips, raise the pitch in their voices, even stick out their hips and walk on tiptoes.
Relationships between men and women are also funny—especially here. The women are definitely in charge here; from Epicene, who fools her husband, to Mistress Otter (played perfectly by Ben Onyx Dowdy), who bosses her husband, Thomas (played by Eric Jon Caldwell), around and picks on him mercilessly. It’s a lot like one of those Super Bowl commercials.
Nevada Rep is comprised of university students and staff, along with actors in the community. Their work is smart, interesting and unique. Epicene is no exception. It’s three hours, with a short intermission. But stick it out, if for no other reason than to see grown men wearing dresses.