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A CurtainUp Review
Volpone, or the Fox
By Joyce Friedland
You may ask, how can a rarely performed seventeenth-century play become palatable to a modern audience? First of all, choose a well-constructed play that deals with a universal theme, such as greed: Volpone’s antics seem familiar when compared to the stories of greed that we encounter every day. Then, shorten the script — even if that means eliminating the characters and actions of Sir Politick Would-be and Peregrine and abbreviating some of the monologues. Next, play the comedy very broadly, milking it for all the laughs it can get. Add music, some choreography, and keep the audience actively engaged by having some of the actors enter and exit through the aisles. This is indeed what Red Bull did to contrive an entertainment that moves from silly to comical to farcical and back again.
You keep laughing as long as you don’t take the subject matter too seriously. Yes, we see avarice and lack of morals in all but two of the characters (Celia and Bonario); and yes, greed is punished in the end, but this play goes for the laughs, not for the life lessons to be learned.
The talented actors, under the direction of Jesse Berger, bring their characters to life the minute they arrive on stage. As played by the slender Tony-Awardwinning Stephen Spinella in what appears to be long underwear with a well-padded codpiece, Volpone, who you may have thught of as corpulent and generally disgusting, is almost lovable as he camps around,. At the blink of an eye (or in this case a knock on the door), he mutates from being a dying old man to an avaricious, lustful trickster.
Mosca, as played by Cameron Folmar, is Volpone's servant and cohort. As the planner and organizer of all his schemes, I would have expected Mosca to show a more powerful and sleazier personality lurking beneath his outward charm.
The three potential heirs to Volpone’s wealth — caricatures of their professions or social class — played their roles consistently and well. Veteran actor Alvin Epstein in the role of Corbaccio, comes across as a charming, nearly deaf old gentleman despite his greed that permitted him to disinherit his son in the pursuit of Volpone’s fortune. The Fine Madam Would-Be, an English lady, was played to the hilt and brilliantly by Tovah Feldshuh. The seduction scene in which she attacks Volpone on his own bed is slapstick at its best. It may seem silly, but it is really very funny when each of these characters artfully displays his or her particular avian characteristics when schemes are squelched.
The elements of music, dance, and cabaret entertainment are introduced by the strange triumvirate of Nano, a dwarf (Teale Sperling); Castrone, a eunuch (Sean Patrick Doyle); and Androgyno, a hermaphrodite (Alexander Sovronsky). As part of Volpone’s corrupt, but light-hearted household, they punctuate every point of the plot. The music composed by Scott Killian alternates between sounding contemporary and having a seventeenth-century sound, but I found it confusing and sometimes distracting.
John Arnone's early 1600’s Venice settings and Clint Ramos's costumes reflect this time and place. The primary set is appropriately Volpone’s bedroom where an imposing bed is the place from which all of his evil plans emanate. Scenes of Venice that appear to be enlarged seventeenth-century etchings serve as backdrops, and pull-down shades, operated manually and in full view of the audience, are used to change scenes. As imaginative and charming as this is, it squeezes together the action on a small stage and makes the set feel claustrophobic. Given the small space, the players and the audience would benefit from it being less cluttered.
By the time you come to the end of this production you'll have been amused , enjoyed Jonson’s prose and poetry, and even felt sympathy for some of the most despicable characters. Though you may cringe at what the advocate decides, when Volpone requests that you applaud, you will probably stand at your seat and do so for this rare revival with such a distinguished cast.
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