Volpone or The Fox
"Volpone, or The Fox," according to Red Bull Theater, "sits atop any list of great comic plays ever written..." This my very well be the case -- I'm certainly not a scholar of Renaissance Theater -- but if I made a list, it would sit squarely in the middle. The play is just okay.
That's why this production of the Ben Jonson comedy is so impressive. Director Jesse Berger has shepherded an all star cast to an experience that far transcends the shaky story and one dimensional characters penned in 1606.
Set in Venice, "Volpone" opens with the title character whispering sweet nothings to his riches and bragging to us about his charmed life. He truly hasn't a care in the world.
A man void of ethics, Volpone has spent the last several years growing his wealth exponentially by feigning his impending death. The scam works like this: with no living family Volpone has no heir. Believing that he is near death, members of high society pay him frequent visits.
Hoping get in his good graces and be named his heir, they come bearing expensive tokens of their appreciation. Working with his knave, Mosca, Volpone strings them along, acquiring more and more gifts, each one more expensive than the last.
The only downside to his scheme is that Volpone must stay confined to his house, as everyone thinks he's on his death bed. True to classical form, this sole condition leads to his demise. Volpone is so enchanted by Mosca's description of Celia, Corvino the merchant's wife, that he cannot resist the temptation to see her for himself.
Disguised, he ventures out into the town square to get a look. When he finds her as beautiful as described, he conspires with Mosca to convince Corvino to offer her as incentive be named heir.
Sadly, unlike gold plates and pearls, people have opinions. Celia wants no part of the plan and pleas with her husband to relent. When he does not she is left alone with Volpone who reveals himself to be healthy as a horse and as forceful as a bull. She resists his violent attempts just long enough to be saved by Bonario, the son of another of Volpone's suiters, Corbaccio.
Having been exposed, he and Mosca scramble to contain the situation. The plan may have worked but Mosca betrays Volpone when they fake his death. That betrayal leads to their mutual downfall.
Stephen Spinella is brilliant as Volpone; he so expertly captures the character's charm and humor that we have no choice but to love the despicable man. Cameron Folmar is very strong as Mosca. Alvin Epstein is a scene stealer as Corpaccio.
There were a few stumblers among the performers. As Celia, Christina Pumariega is far too screechy, so much so that I didn't care that her husband pimped her out. Alexander Sovronsky's very Chelsea Boy portrayal of the hermaphrodite didn't fit the classical tone of the other performances.
John Arone's set is perfect. Its simplicity is highly functional without losing aesthetic value. Scott Killian's compositions are wonderful. Those songs can be deadly and he makes them enjoyable.
The most impressive thing about this production of "Volpone" is how accessible it makes the material. Everything is delivered with clarity, from the direction, to the performers, all the way down to the costumes and wigs. There is none of the muddiness that is the undoing of so many productions of the classical plays.
Even if you don't like these old plays, or -- to take it further -- if you know this play and know you don't like it, see it for the cast. It's a rare thing to see so many experts sharing the stage.
"Volpone" runs through Dec. 23 at the Lucille Lortel Theatger, 121 Christopher Street. For info or tickets, visit the Red Bull Theater website.