Theater archives

Volpone: Your Ben Jonson Con Man


Does flu season have you in its wheezy grip? Do you suffer headache, sinus pain, body aches as you drag yourself to the Lucille Lortel for Ben Jonson’s Volpone? Well, whatever plagues you, Stephen Spinella, who stars as the eponymous trickster, has it worse. Or so he’d have you believe.

In this Jacobean version of the long con, Volpone fakes a mortal illness in order to gull three oldsters out of their money and jewels. With aid from his not-so-faithful servant Mosca (the agreeably sleazy Cameron Folmar), Volpone promises each an inheritance, sending the trio racing to his bedside with luxurious gifts and the odd dram of poison.

It’s delightful to watch Spinella’s Volpone transform from his sprightly, sinister self into an imaginary invalid. Carefully, he adjusts his breath, his posture, his expression. He has Mosca apply dots of rheum below each eye. A moment later he really does seem at death’s door. Spinella engaged in a similar, more serious masquerade nearly two decades ago, as the grievously ill Prior in Angels in America, which lends lends this counterfeit a further frisson.

Jonson, it will surprise no one, is not Shakespeare, which has its benefits and detriments. Jonson is cruel in a vicious, delicious way that Shakespeare rarely allows himself to be, but he’s also a more static and verbose writer. His speeches and characters lack that quicksilver agility that can pack several sudden reversals into a single monologue. The poetry here is clever and toothsome—and Red Bull director Jesse Berger encourages his actors to understand and enjoy it—but each passage is quite a mouthful and can slow the action.

As in previous Red Bull shows, the direction and design give a hip and somewhat naughty sheen to an antique play. Here, the show sometimes strains for this effect, as in the attention lavished on Volpone’s fools—a dwarf, a hermaphrodite, and a eunuch (the last played by the astonishingly voiced countertenor Sean Patrick Doyle). But for the most part, Berger pushes the scenes forward as briskly as the language allows, aided by ample and judicious editing, which cuts the script by perhaps a third.

Though Berger sometimes suffers when trying to convey real pathos (the play’s innocents, Celia and Bonario, receive somewhat dull treatment), he always engages confidently with acerbity and satire. Additionally, he not only insures that his cast (which includes old pros Rocco Sisto, Alvin Epstein, and a preening Tovah Feldshuh) has a good time, but also that they communicate this enjoyment to the audience. The play may not end well for our Volpone, but this foxy frisk should leave most playgoers feeling more hale than when they arrived.