What could be more contemporary than greed? It's certainly at the heart of Ben Jonson's delicious 1606 comedy, Volpone,, or the Fox, but theatergoers these days aren't given many chances to see the work these days. This unfortunate circumstance is being remedied by Jesse Berger and the Red Bull Theatre with a mostly flavorsome new production of the piece at the Lucille Lortel Theatre.
Jonson sets the standard for his world with the show's opening line: "Good morning to the day; and next, my gold," spoken by Volpone (Stephen Spinella) as he wakes up to another 24 hours surrounded by trunks of treasure that he's amply multiplying by scamming his rich friends. For three years, he's pretended to be fatally ill. And given that he's never married and has no children, his acquaintances are doing their utmost to insinuate themselves into his good favor, by bringing gifts and feigning friendship in order to be named as his sole heir.
While Volpone should be the sort of character that you generally love to hate, in Spinella's always charming turn you find yourself easily falling in love with him. (He behaves like a three-year-old on Christmas morning during the play's opening moments), Moreover, there's little sense of danger in Spinella's characterization, even when Volpone's greed takes a lascivious turn after he's left alone with the virtuous Celia (Christina Pumariega, in an overly modern performance), the wife of one of his suitors, Corvino (Michael Mastro), and nearly rapes her. Spinella certainly goes through the motions of throwing this helpless woman to the bed, but it never seems, as it should, to be the defining act of a man simply driven by sensuousness in all of its meanings.
Cameron Folmar's portrayal of Volpone's servant, Mosca, proves to be equally problematic. He struggles with the play's language and has yet to find the balance between the character's kindly false fronts and the maliciousness that lies just underneath. Volpone's other servants, the dwarf Nano (Teale Sperling), the eunuch Castrone (Sean Patrick Doyle), and the hermaphrodite Androgyno (Alexander Sovronsky), actually feel more ominous, although that may be because these talented performers look a bit like The Joker's creepy crew in WB's Batman cartoons.
There's also a grand combination of vileness and humor in Mastro's marvelously calibrated work as Corvino. The actor both inspires disgust and provokes laughter as the character prostitutes his wife in the hopes of enriching himself. Equally adept at finding the comedy in loathsome behavior are Rocco Sisto as the predatory attorney Voltore and Alvin Epstein as Corbaccio, an ancient man who goes so far as to disinherit his milquetoast son, Bonario (imbued with cute priggishness by Gregory Wooddell), in the hopes of becoming Volpone's heir.
Volpone gets one other suitor alongside these three birds of prey: Madam Would-Be (Tovah Feldshuh), an Englishwoman who's part Victorian prude and part lustful bawd. While she is only in a couple of scenes (and Berger has thankfully trimmed the play so that her husband, Sir Politik Would-Be, is nowhere to be found), Feldshuh steals them all with her robust and marvelously controlled, yet over-the-top, performance.
Almost equally attention-getting are Clint Ramos' opulent 17th-century costumes. They are trimmed with foxtails and other fluffy pelts, which point to the characters' animalistic natures, while also allowing the fur to literally fly. Other smile-inducing details created by Ramos include the antennae on the tri-corner hat that Mosca wears and Voltore's red stockings, which perfectly bring to mind the cringe-inducing legs of a predatory raptor. These ensembles are beautifully showcased by John Arnone's whimsically elegant scenic design that looks like a cross between a kid's pop-up book and a crumbling tome of the period.
Even if this production of this lesser-seen comedy has its flaws, it's a welcome alternative to the too-often-produced Shakespearean works of the same period, and a fine introduction to a play more theatergoers should become familiar with.