NEW YORK—”What rare punishment is avarice to itself,” notes the title character in Ben Jonson’s 17th century work “Volpone,” offering a look at how man’s wanton greed is often his own undoing. This lesson is skillfully presented in the delightfully ribald production by Red Bull Theater.
Volpone (Stephen Spinella) is the one of the richest men in 1607 Venice, prancing before his wealth (literally) and worshipping his gold as if it were a god. Not content with what he has, he takes great pleasure in humiliating those who would curry his favor.
For the last three years, he has pretended to be at death’s door. With the help of his loyal servant, the just as mercenary Mosca (Cameron Folmar), Volpone has been extracting material gifts from the lawyer Voltore (Rocco Sisto), the merchant Corvino (Michael Mastro), and the old gentleman Corbaccio (Alvin Epstein).
Each is firmly convinced they will become Volpone’s sole heir. Corbaccio has even disinherited his son Bonario (Gregory Wooddell) and made Volpone his own heir, believing Volpone will thus return the favor.
Also enjoying the pleasure of the flesh, Volpone has set his eyes on Corvino’s beautiful wife, Celia (Christina Pumariega). Volpone and Mosca play on Corvino’s greed to induce him to bring his own wife to Volpone’s bed.
However, Volpone’s one weakness is not knowing when to stop. Not only will Celia not willingly submit to his desires, but she finds an unexpected defender in Bonario, who is trying to unravel what is happening with his father.
Desperate to silence the pair’s accusations, Volpone and Mosca attempt to discredit them, once again using Volpone’s wealth as a lure.
Jonson’s tale takes great pleasure in showing how people are driven by their base natures, a point brought home time and again in this first-rate production.
There’s a reason Voltore, Corvino, and Corbaccio are referred to as the vulture, crow, and raven. Volpone delights in being able to make this trio continually jump to his every whim.
This condition also affects the otherwise no-nonsense Avocatore (Raphael Nash Thompson), the magistrate presiding over the matter with Celia and Bonario, where conflicting stories are presented and accusations bandied about.
One element that really makes the play stand out, in addition to the first-rate acting, is the way it is staged. The company shows most of the characters, the fleeced and those doing the fleecing, as objects of ridicule, while presenting the work as a pointed moral satire.
Jesse Berger’s direction is excellent here, allowing the actors to take their characterizations completely over the top at times, yet still always keeping them in context with the roles they’re portraying.
Another important aspect of the show is the impressive set designs by John Arnone, particularly the detailed painted backdrops used to set some of the scenes.
Spinella makes a wonderful Volpone, a perennial schemer getting an orgasmic joy in seeing how he can make those in his orbit sacrifice their honor and respect. Were he not someone completely devoid of a moral compass, he would probably be regarded as everyone’s favorite eccentric uncle or rascally rogue.
Folmar plays off Spinella nicely as Mosca, the character quite tellingly billed as a parasite; Mosca is a servant to Volpone strictly for monetary gain and enjoys both literally and vicariously Volpone’s successes.
Mosca also shows what happens when someone is suddenly is given the keys to the kingdom, or in this case, has the chance to get hold of Volpone’s money.
Sisto is nicely bombastic as Voltore, a man who will believe anything so long as it will get him Volpone’s fortune in the end.
Mastro does some wonderful overacting as Corvino, someone not afraid to make himself a cuckold if it will be to his advantage. Epstein provides some enjoyable comic relief as the hard-of-hearing Corbaccio, a man just as greedy as Volpone’s other two suitors.
Also quite good is Tovah Feldshuh as a Would-Be Lady, whose manner in actuality betrays much coarser tendencies and habits.
Wooddell makes a nicely steadfast, if somewhat naive Bonario, while Pumariega brings some much needed morality to the role of Celia. Also providing some light and risqué moments are Teale Sperling, Sean Patrick Doyle, and Alexander Sovronsky, as respectively, a dwarf, eunuch, and fool whom Volpone employs for various entertainments.
A winner on every level, and where the various flatulence and other off-color moments make perfect sense in the story told, Red Bull Theater has done an absolutely stupendous job with their production of “Volpone.”
It is an all too familiar and sadly topical tale of the overall decadence of the human species; one where honor and morality are in short supply.
Also in the cast are Jen Eden and Pearl Rhein.
Lucille Lortel Theatre
121 Christopher Street
Tickets: 212-352-3101 or visit www.redbulltheater.com
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Closes: Dec. 23
Judd Hollander is the New York correspondent for the London publication The Stage.
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