Friday, December 14, 2012

THEATER: Fine Animal Instincts Shown in "Volpone, or the Fox"

Photo/Carol Rosegg
Greed, despite what you may have heard, isn't good. Comedies about greedy men, on the other hand are. And while Red Bull (every bit as energetic as the drink) is best known for its bloody, revenge-filled tragedies -- and this 1606 play of Ben Jonson's is known as a scathing satire -- the just desserts awarded to Volpone's supposedly above-the-law Venician one-percenters are well within director Jesse Berger's and his company's wheelhouse. The web of deceit that Mosca (Cameron Folmar) spins to convince a trio of sycophantic noblemen to make regular gifts to his "dying" master, Volpone (Stephen Spinella), so that they might buy their way into becoming his heir, is a farcical delight, but the true pleasures come at watching these suitors -- lawyer Voltore (Rocco Sisto), the befuddled old Scrooge, Corbaccio (Alven Epstein); and preening merchant Corvino (Michael Mastro) -- devolve into their animal namesakes. (Sly foxes -- volpone -- often pretend to be dead, in the hopes of catching and killing their prey: vultures, ravens, and crows.) Given how entertainingly ridiculous it all gets, you might as well dub it Bachelor: Venice 1607.

Berger eschews any hint at subtlety (John Arnone's set consists of a few hand-drawn backdrops and a single, domineering death bed: realism this is not) and wisely has his characters lay it on thick, lest we feel sorry for any of them. Clint Ramos's costumes emphasize or exaggerate each character's nature -- note Volpone's absurd pajama cod-piece; see Voltore's dashing black and white-feathered cloak -- as do the wigs and hair design Charles LaPointe uses to tart up Volpone's idle pleasures: a eunuch named Castrone (Sean Patrick Doyle), a dwarf known as Nano (Teale Spearling), and a clown/hermaphrodite known as Androgyno (Alexander Sovronsky). As you can tell by the names, Jonson wasn't attempting to mask the decadent, idle rich: he was exposing them, in all their nefarious "glory." Though Volpone starts out simply thrusting himself at the various hidden compartments in his bed that hold gold coins, pearls, and other baubles, he's soon getting all rape-y toward Celia (Christina Pumariega), whose husband, Corvino, has basically pimped out with the threat of physical violence. These cartoonish fops, who begin as curious creeps, soon become all-out villains: money corrupts, absolutely, even in a comedy.

All that said, portions of Volpone are overstuffed and more than a little repetitive, and the female characters -- like the Fine Madam Would-Be (the game Tovah Feldshuh), who is attempting to seduce Vopone for his wealth -- are all unflatteringly underwritten, neither comic or dramatic: they're just objects. After catching its breath during the intermission, the second half slows down and takes its time moralizing before the Venetian courts, rather than simply allowing Mosca's machinations to implode. (In fact, there's a notable lull whenever Folmar is off-stage; his double-takes, asides, and quick wit are needed to give all that buffoonery a direction.) You can't blame Berger for his fidelity to the script, nor the actors for their over-the-top dedication to such intentionally shallow characters (Epstein and Mastro are standouts, though the entire cast is top-notch); perhaps it's simply that this revival of Volpone is a little too timely, with ninety-nine percent of the audience racing ahead of the play to the inevitable and satisfying ending. Still, even if this production were nothing more than a fox-trap (and as a rousting bit of theater, it is more), it's a well-crafted and oiled machine; you won't mind getting caught up for several hours.

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