NEW YORK (AP) — Greed that overreaches and causes its own undoing is the primary target of Ben Jonson's 1606 satire, "Volpone." Considering the ongoing global financial crisis, it's clear that classic theater can remain eerily relevant even after 400 years.
Jonson was an English Renaissance poet and playwright considered an equal to his contemporary, William Shakespeare. His acerbic social satire is being performed in a robust, mirthful production by Red Bull Theater titled "Volpone, or The Fox" that opened Sunday night off-Broadway at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in the West Village.
Under Jesse Berger's direction, the production is farcically paced yet not frenzied. Berger provides time to savor the antics, along with the genius of Jonson's jests and plot twists, as handled by a wonderfully spirited ensemble in appropriately broad mode.
Stephen Spinella is an ingratiating if youthful-looking Volpone (the Fox), a manipulative con artist in Venice, Italy. Spinella conveys endless delight in his character's inventive machinations, appealing guilelessly to the audience for applause and sympathy.
Miserly Volpone, who begins each day by worshiping his piles of ill-gotten gold and baubles, has merrily connived for three years with his duplicitous servant Mosca, aka the Parasite or the Fly, (portrayed with scamp-like relish by Cameron Folmar), to increase his fortune by stringing along a series of greedy, would-be heirs. Eventually, some of their tricks will backfire alarmingly.
Four greedy and deluded fools ply Volpone with lavish gifts to ingratiate themselves, while he pretends to be near death to keep them on the hook. He ironically refers to them as his "birds of prey," when in fact he preys upon these would-be scavengers.
Rocco Sisto masterfully portrays Voltore, a glowering lawyer, his pale, stooped, beaklike appearance matching his Vulture's costume. Alvin Epstein is delightfully doddering as elderly, nearly-deaf Corbaccio (the Raven).
Michael Mastro is swaggering and odious as Corvino (the Crow), an abusive merchant who jealously hides and abuses his beautiful young wife, Celia (Christina Pumariega.) Such is the level of greed here that Corvino pimps out his young wife to Volpone, despite her chaste, horrified protests, and then publicly denounces her to save his own hide.
Tovah Feldshuh is a scene-stealing, chirping harpy as Fine Madam Would-Be, swooping grandly around the stage but as easily beguiled by greed as the other three. Pumariega gives Celia a sweetly mimed air of outraged innocence; Celia's unwarranted belief that Heaven "never fails the innocent" reflects Jonson's lampooning subversion of religion. Gregory Wooddell is nobly foolish as her valiant protector, Bonario.
Adding to the light-hearted feel of this production are a trio of singing, comically-costumed, accomplished actors who play Volpone's private entertainment squad: a dwarf (Teale Sperling), a eunich (Sean Patrick Doyle) and a hermaphrodite (Alexander Sovronsky).
We'd need a time machine to blame Jonson for darkening the mood in the final scene, because he didn't forgive human foibles as generously as did Shakespeare. There are no happy endings for these mercenary characters, because Avocatore, the magistrate, (played with perfect comic gravitas and then blustering rage by Raphael Nash Thompson) is furious at being lied to.
Live music, and sumptuous costumes by Clint Ramos add to the period feel. John Arnone's grandly plain set converts easily to both Volpone's bedroom and the courtroom, the two places where his doom is sealed.
This "Volpone" is quite a merry farce, and another triumphant classic revival by Red Bull Theater.