Folio Theatre Company

A huge hit 395 years ago, Every Man in His Humour is Ben Jonson’s comedy of temperaments, a work whose ancient stereotypes crop up in today’s sitcoms. Controlled by key organs, the four humors were the choleric (or splenetic), the sanguine, the phlegmatic, and the melancholy–and these could be combined to create volatile mixtures. It was believed that each person had a prevailing humor, however, that inevitably clashed with its opposite.

Satirizing his characters by exaggerating their quirks, Jonson gives each man a special obsession and lets him hang himself (the women seem exempt). In 1599 Jonson wrote a companion piece, Every Man Out of His Humour; taking the reverse course, it mocked the fashions of the day as absurdities that made people deny their humors, a resistance as ridiculous as succumbing to them.

First performed in 1598 at the Curtain Theatre (with Shakespeare in the cast!), Every Man in His Humour was revised in 1606 and the characters given English names. But the humors, dictated by nature and unleashed by circumstance, remained inviolate: they are the main source of the play’s hilarity and provide the predictability essential to Jonson’s comedy of recognition. “Loving still our popular errors,” he happily holds a fun-house mirror up to his audience, pillorying self-love in all its twisted mutations.

Most humor-ridden is the merchant Kitely, jealous of his pretty young wife and tormented by the roistering gallants and pompous poetasters who invade his house. Among them are the plagiarizing poet Matthew, the simpering rural fop Stephen, and the cowardly braggart soldier Bobadill (one of Jonson’s sharpest creations). Meanwhile country gentleman Edward Knowell’s prevailing humor, “bred by affectation and fed by folly,” is excessive concern for his son’s moral welfare; Knowell Sr. sends his servant Brainworm to spy on the relatively humor-free young man, who’s smitten with Kitely’s sister Bridget.

Employing disguises and other devious means, Brainworm brings Kitely, his wife, and several other of the principal parties–wounded, scheming, or hopeful–to the home of the roguish water bearer Cob, where assorted silly complications occur. Finally, merry magistrate Justice Clement sorts out the tangles. Bobadill is exposed and punished, young Knowell wins Bridget, and the “gulls” are spoofed as mercilessly as they deserve.

Unlike Shakespeare in his plays, Jonson invented this story, and as a comic experiment to prove men creatures of their habits it succeeds well enough. But unlike Shakespeare’s classic comedies, the incoherent plot takes forever to get in gear and soon becomes far more convoluted than the paltry comic payoff justifies. Jonson seems to have been making up Every Man in His Humour as he went along–only the play’s predictability gives it the illusion of direction.

Charles Constant’s ambitious staging for the Folio Theatre Company may be a local premiere–and perhaps the play’s sole revival for years to come. If dogged bluster and intense grimacing sufficed, this production would be a comic gem, but then there’s the writing: all the frenetic work of Constant’s 16-member cast can’t lift this antiquarian curiosity to even the lower heights of hilarity. The key problem with this unrollicking 140 minutes is that, faced with vast stretches of tomfoolery ranging from the merely tedious to the completely obscure, the director actually slackened the pace, as if this stuff might get clearer if it were slowed down. It doesn’t.

What’s needed are some deft hams to pick up the pieces (and the pace). Only two approach hilarity, but they remain at a respectful distance: David Mitchell Ghilardi gives the all-grasping Kitely a manic drive that, though it builds quickly and discharges easily, has humor-ous possibilities. As the blowhard Bobadill, Richard Sandoval readily inflates as needed, but like many here he can’t make us despise his character enough to enjoy seeing him punished.

As the wily servant Brainworm, Yakov Neiditch doesn’t seem to be having any fun, certainly not enough to be contagious, perhaps because today the character’s shenanigans seem arbitrary and his disguises simply silly. Dan McGeehan as the epicene Stephen got the most laughs from the eager-to-be-pleased audience, mainly by soulfully gazing at his own reflection (in the time-honored fop tradition). But that’s no great glory. The other roles range from tentative to dismal to unspeakable.

It could be worse–apparently Every Man Out of His Humour is even more incoherent. At least there’s always Volpone.