nytheatre.com review by Nat Cassidy
December 6, 2012
Oh, Ben Jonson. If I were feeling particularly snarky I might accuse him of taking an entire career to say what William Shakespeare nailed in one line: “lechery, lechery, still wars and lechery; nothing else holds fashion.” But who am I kidding, snarkiness is a key Jonsonian virtue and that’d only go towards proving just how necessary his twisted satires really are. He might not be the most universal and poetic author of his day but he’s certainly the bad boy of English Renaissance drama, the Rolling Stones to Shakespeare’s Fab Four, and that’s reason enough to love him.
Arguably his most famous and enduring work, Volpone, is a cynical, sly (yes, as a fox), pitch black comedy that, if you’ll permit one more moment of bardolatry, functions as a sort of marriage between Timon of Athens and Merchant of Venice, as seen through the eyes of the already-quoted Thersites. The plot concerns Volpone, an extravagantly wealthy Venetian gentleman pretending to be a catarrhal invalid on death’s door, and all the ways he and his buzzing parasite Mosca gleefully scam goods and services out of a group of ambitious would-be-heirs lobbying for his affections. Volpone falls in lust with the wife of one of his suitors and things get complicated from there.
And are there singing eunuchs, dwarfs, and hermaphrodites, you ask? Of course there are; one of each! Their names are Castrone, Nano, and Androgyno, respectively, because this is Ben Jonson – and if you find those names hilarious (as I do), you’re halfway there.
This is the first time Red Bull Theatre has mounted a full production of an outright comedy and Volpone is a fitting bridge. Red Bull has found much success mining a healthy sense of humor out of the bleakest, blackest Jacobean revenge tragedies and with Volpone, they get the chance to flip that formula around. It’s a comedy begging to flirt with the dark side and Red Bull does so with gusto. It’s ultimately an imperfect production, but one that succeeds in creating a messy, fun, ambiguous mix of humor and revulsion, all of which is prime Ben Jonson.
The evening is expertly staged by Jesse Berger, Red Bull’s artistic director. The cast includes a charmingly smarmy Stephen Spinella in the title role, a rapturously raptorial Rocco Sisto, the always magnetic Tovah Feldshuh, and a host of other accomplished actors—they’re all fantastic and they bring an extraordinary naturalness to Jonson’s verse. Frankly, you’ll be hard pressed to find verse spoken more honestly on a New York stage.
One of my favorite aspects of Red Bull’s always-excellent productions is the detail in their design. The sets of Volpone, designed by John Arnone,differ pretty greatly from previous shows (the multi-level world of Women Beware Women, the earthen pit of The Witch of Edmonton, the stunning diorama of The Maids) but they continue their tradition of serving as marvelous visual metaphors for the play at hand. In this case, the various locations of Venice are created using a series of beautiful drops painted to resemble illustrations of the day. Aesthetically pleasing to begin with, they’re also a marvelously smart comment on the ornately flimsy facades employed by all the characters on display.
Clint Ramos’ stunning costumes also go far to embrace the intrinsic metaphors of Volpone, as well. His pieces strike just the right balance between the realism and the anthropomorphic characteristics of each character (if you haven’t noticed already, almost every character has a rather indicative name, one of Jonson’s favorite tricks). Mr. Berger and his actors have built into the evening delightfully subtle moments of cawing and crowing to further enhance the animalism – it’s a really nice touch.
However, if there’s one complaint I had with the production, it’s that there seemed to be a curious lack of stakes which slowed down much of the first half. This is partly Jonson’s fault (and the production does excise most of a subplot involving English vacationers which is probably for the best, though it unfortunately leaves Ms. Feldshuh with comparatively little to do), but it felt to me as if perhaps the clarity of the lines were inordinately prioritized over comedic momentum. The production admirably shies away from the over-broad, but, to my mind, I wanted to feel like there was more on the line than just the amusement of two rather despicable men, however enjoyably despicable they might be. Thankfully, the second act propels things quite nicely as the plot mechanics kick into motion, and I’m sure the first act will tighten up as the run progresses.