Jesse Berger has been making a name for himself with daring, low-budget, emotionally direct productions of off-the-run Elizabethan and Jacobean classics like Edward II, The Witch of Edmonton, Women Beware Women, The Dutchess of Malfi. Now they’ve moved on up to a classier venue downtown, the Lucille Lortel, and for their first offering in their new space they’ve programmed a somewhat more mainstream classic, Ben Jonson’s satiric comedy, Volpone. And it’s a delight from start to finish.
I’ve managed never to see or read Jonson’s play before, so this production was my introduction. The plot is a simple one, if rather full of holes. The title character, Volpone, childless and wealthy, has been faking a soon-to-be-fatal illness as a scheme to swindle his wealthy fellow-citizens. They shower him with gifts in the hopes of winning his favor and being named his heir. His trusty servant, Mosca, dutifully tells each suitor that he is certain to be so named, if only one more gift is forthcoming. And thus the game has continued for three years, until Volpone gets a bit too greedy – first for the pleasure of the beautiful (but pure) wife of one of his suitors, and then for a final act of contemptuous revenge on his swindlees that nearly puts his own neck in the noose.
The plot, as I say, has more than a few holes. (How does Volpone plan to keep his ravishing of his suitor’s wife secret? How exactly does naming Mosca his apparent heir, and faking his own death, benefit Volpone in any way? Why does Lady Would-be want to borrow his dwarf?) But you barely notice these. The play’s purpose is to bounce from comic set-piece to comic set-piece in an escalating crescendo, and to revel in the corruption of very nearly everybody in the Italian town, with the exception of Celia, the pure woman Volpone attempts to seduce, and the noble but bookish Bonario, son of another suitor, the aged and nearly-deaf Corbaccio. And bounce it merrily does.
The cast is so uniformly strong I don’t know who to single out. Alvin Epstein’s comic timing is as sharp as his Corbaccio’s sight (and sense) is dim; Stephen Spinella stays just the right side of camp as the lewd and avaricious Volpone; Raphael Nash Thompson’s Avocatore strays appropriately to the other side in his grand courthouse oration that very nearly saves Volpone from his own folly; and Tovah Feldshuh’s Lady Would-be steals pretty much every scene she’s in. But the biggest revelation, to me, was Cameron Folmar as Mosca. Mosca is the only character in the play with a true arc, who professes to have learned his corrupt trade in Volpone’s service, and who we see progress from pupil to tutor in the short time he is before us.
Will the play stay with me? I don’t know. The whole gift-giving thing doesn’t translate so well to the present, when consumer durables form such a small part of the budget of the truly wealthy. A modern Volpone would need to be running some kind of investment swindle to pull in the requisite cash. (I had a similar problem attempting to adapt Timon of Athens for the screen with a modern setting; that’s another play where the gift-giving economy features heavily.) The distance between the economics of past and present limit the effectiveness of social satire, which leaves us with a satire of character. And the riches of that vein will never fully be mined.