Just how well remembered is Ben Johnson, who was once ranked as Shakespeare’s equal on the Jacobean theatre scene? Put it this way. When I ran a Google search on “Ben Johnson,” I retrieved lots of links about the Canadian sprinter of the same name but nothing on the playwright.
Like many of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, Johnson’s work is rarely performed nowadays, even by theater companies dedicated exclusively to classical theater. So it’s nice to have a company in New York like Red Bull, which has injected a young, energized creativity into many rarely seen verse plays over the past decade, to tackle one of Johnson’s best works.
Red Bull’s production of the 1606 satire of greed Volpone comes at an auspicious time for the company, which has been presenting numerous starry readings and is finally ready to produce more than a single show each year. (It will present Strindberg’s Dance of Death in the spring.) It’s also worth noting that Volpone is being produced at the prestigious Lucille Lortel Theatre on Christopher Street with a cast full of seasoned pros including Stephen Spinella (Angels in America), the irreplaceable Tovah Feldshuh and the versatile veteran Alvin Epstein.
Volpone, the most dedicated charlatan in Venice, has convinced three misers (including, appropriately enough, a lawyer) that he is on the verge of death and that each of them is on the verge of being named Volpone’s sole heir. These dupes, increasingly hungry for the prize in sight, shower Volpone with expensive gifts.
But Volpone gets in trouble once his sex drive leads to his attempt to woo (and nearly rape) the young wife of one of his victims. Thus begins a downward and uncontrolled spiral that not even his dedicated servant Mosca, who has ambitions of his own, can get him out of.
Red Bull founder Jesse Berger, who has directed virtually all of the company’s productions, has trimmed the text so that it runs just under two and a half hours, going so far as to remove an entire subplot involving the English travelers Sir Politic Would-Be and Peregrine. (Strangely enough, the role of Lady Would-Be has still been preserved, but most likely for the chance to have Feldshuh in the cast.)
While I greatly admire Red Bull’s hip and stylized aesthetic, Volpone turns out to be a misfire for the most part. Even with a script that involves countless farcical situations, Berger’s production lands with a thud instead of landing laughs. At least Berger successfully and colorfully emphasizes Volpone’s band of misfit, freakish followers, which include a eunuch (Sean Patrick Doyle), a hermaphrodite (Alexander Sovronsky) and a dwarf (Teale Sperling). Live music (written by Scott Killian) is also thrown in.
Spinella’s flamboyant theatrics come off mainly as excessive, as less authoritative even than Cameron Folmer’s measured Mosca. The other cast members certainly show off their prowess, although they rarely come together as a whole. As Lady Would-Be, Feldshuh more or less takes over and reenergizes the production at its most flagging moments. Epstein, playing a very old merchant, is more understated but also manages to steal the stage for a few precious moments.