Like Christopher Marlowe’s Barabas and William Shakespeare’s Richard III, Ben Jonson’s Volpone (Stephen Spinella) is one of the great comic villains of the theater. Through a mixture of genius, amorality, and boredom, he uses his wealth and his social standing to turn the greediest men of Venice into a series of drooling zombies. Pretending to be near death, and aided by his “parasite” Mosca (Cameron Folmar), he induces a parade of citizens to present him with a series of gifts in the hope of being written into his will. Voltore (Rocco Sisto), a lawyer, offers a golden plate as well as his services gratis; Corbaccio (Alvin Epstein), an ancient man who is barely alive himself, disinherits his son and writes Volpone into his will in exchange for like treatment; and Corvino (Michael Masto), a merchant, overcomes his raging jealousy to pimp his beautiful wife, Celia (Christina Pumariega), to the seemingly impotent Volpone. In the opening scene, grinning maliciously, Volpone confides to us with an almost sexual zeal, “Still bearing them in hand, / Letting the cherry knock against their lips, / And draw it by their mouths, and back again.”
Director Jesse Berger has trimmed Volpone for his revival, cutting out the supporting character Sir Politic Would-Be and achieving a work that is more faithful to Aristotle’s classical unities. Though it runs over two hours, the play barrels through its running time with comedic ferocity. “Volpone” means “fox” in Italian, and Mr. Spinella inhabits the eponymous role with the lithe malice of his kindred animal; bearing an infectious Cheshire Cat smile, he swiftly recruits us as his voyeuristic confederates. The other characters are named after animals as well—“Mosca” means “fly,” “Voltore” “vulture,” “Corbaccio” “raven,” and “Corvino” “crow”—and the rest of the cast squawks and flutters with the full-bodied talent of a group of first-rate commedia actors lovingly playing their types. Mr. Epstein, a mainstay of New York theater, may have the line of the night when he wheezily belts—looking more like a gaudily dressed Crypt Keeper than a raven—“This makes me young again!”
One of the problems with Bardolatry is that theater companies with eyes on the classics often ignore Shakespeare’s contemporaries. This is partially rectified by the Red Bull Theater’s masterful production of Volpone, which is easily among the best shows of the year.