Inveterate diarist Samuel Pepys took a break from his tiring duties in England’s naval bureaucracy to attend a performance of Volpone. The Restoration man of the world rated the performance highly: “the best I ever saw, and well acted.”
Most of the other works by Ben Jonson do not approach the high standard set by this 1607 satire, but Pepys might have been more correct than not about this one classic. As wondrous as Shakespeare’s comedies can be, none could approach the fierce bite of Volpone. Remarkably, Jonson’s jaundiced vision of a society gulled, and defined, by greed has only gained in currency, as evidenced by the fallout from the Global Financial Crisis.
More often than not, it’s become the practice of modern companies to stage Jonson’s contemporary, friend and rival, William Shakespeare, in modern rather than Elizabethan dress. The modern age takes this to an even stronger extreme in the case of Jonson: They not only junk the dress but the text. Joseph Mankiewicz’s 1967 film The Honey Pot took the skeleton of the play—a rich man, with the help of his equally cunning servant, convinces a group of people that he's dying, and that a small monetary offering from them will secure his bequest them his far larger fortune—but the results did not match the promise of the writer-director’s earlier illustrious resume (e.g., All About Eve and A Letter to Three Wives). Larry Gelbart’s 1976 play Sly Fox updated the action to San Francisco in the late 1800s. The one production I saw onscreen that retained the Elizabethan time period was Maurice Tourneur’s 1941 French film, based on a screenplay by Jules Romains, with an uncredited assist by Stefan Zweig.
New York’s Red Bull Theater, now in its 10th year of staging classics, stuck with Jonson’s early 17th-century dress and Venetian setting in their production, which closed this past Sunday. In this case, the setting might be even more important than the period garb. The Italian city-state resembled the United States of the early 21st century in being a national force facing increasing challenges to its military and commercial sway. At the same time, it was reaching simultaneous heights in art and decadence.
As faithful readers might recall from this prior post, I have been a great fan of Jonson’s satire for awhile, but I had never actually seen it performed on stage till now. That’s why, when I heard the Red Bull Theater was putting it on, I had to rush down before it closed.
By staging the production without updated accouterments, Red Bull trusted the audience to draw its own conclusions about similarities between the Baroque Venice and our time. At the same time, in the Off-Broadway venue at the Lucille Lortel Theatre down by New York's Christopher Street, it created a sprightly, sumptuous production that still allowed viewers to absorb one of the most remarkable texts in the history of English theater.
Clint Ramos’ costume designs were marvelous (particularly for Michael Mastro’s merchant-on-the-make, Corvino), and the sets—principally, Volpone’s bedroom and a Venetian courtyard and courtroom—sprang to life at the hands of John Ardone.
Director Jesse Berger skillfully accentuated the farcical elements in this classic: the lightning-fast maneuvers of Volpone and his equally grasping manservant, Mosca, to keep each of their three targets continually on the hook without disabusing the others of their illusions; the hearing-impaired mistakes made by the elderly Corbaccio (played by Alvin Epstein, with droll skill); and the way that the Englishwoman, Lady Would-Be Politic (a delicious Tovah Feldshuh) mounts an alarmed Volpone, in her attempt to enjoy his favors while there’s the slightest touch of life in him.
Stephen Spinella (perhaps best known to theatergoers for his role in Angels in America) made of Volpone more than simply a wizened wizard of wiliness. He transformed him a kind of comic counterpart to Richard III, a figure of boundless energy who, in his zestful scheming, made the audience complicit in his crimes. He was especially effective in the scene in Volpone’s bedroom, where this aging character jumped up and down with youthful energy, attempting to seduce with gilded rhetoric and shameless exhibitionism the pretty young wife of one of his targets. Cameron Folmar gave Mosca a flair for the smoothly plausible lie that complemented his boss’ grandiose greed.
The names that Jonson gave his characters—shorthand for their most marked traits—fall principally into the animal (e.g., Volpone, fox; Mosca, fly; Voltore the lawyer, vulture) and heavenly (Celia, the beautiful, virtuous wife of Corvino, the heavenly one; Bonario, good) kingdoms, with precious little room in between. His play, in the highly accomplished hands of the Red Bull Theater, became a still-relevant warning that when it comes to greed, it isn’t hard at all for man to fall into the depths.