Volpone by Ben Jonson, directed by Brent Griffin, Curtain Theater, Austin, Texas, 25 March, 2018.
Reviewed by Michael Saenger
Ben Jonson’s particular brand of moral satire suits the times. There are no heroes in Volpone, though Celia and Bonario have, at least, the moral character to qualify for valor, if not the psychological breadth that would make them heroic. The play thrives on the sense that the connections that we edify with the term “society” are nothing more than an array of lies and games. The play feels oddly topical, as a wealthy patriarch enforces his will for power, self-aggrandizement, and sex, with an alternation of savage precision and wild improvisation. If this is our central character, we know him well.
This production is efficient to the point of being curt; the play’s original sense of lazy dalliance is replaced by the fierce urgency of a linear plot; Sir Politic Would-be and all his scenes are gone. That’s all fine because the performance is accomplished by a bare minimum of actors in the Curtain, a rustically beautiful model of an Elizabethan theater that sits near Lake Austin in something like the way the Globe was steps away from the Thames.
Volpone is playing a kind of primitive ponzi game, where he entertains a series of suitors who compete to leverage gifts in return for an expected inheritance. Each of the aspiring heirs is happy to offer riches to the apparently dying man, on the assumption that such gifts will secure first place in the sickly man’s will. But of course, Volpone is not really sick (until he is), so it’s really a game to see who catches on first. Volpone over-reaches when he desires Celia (Corvino’s wife), and his house of cards comes quickly down. Radix malorum est cupiditas.
This is a very simple staging style, based on original practices. Little is offered in the way of scenic display; for example, Volpone’s “gold” looks like what one might find at a garage sale. But then again, that’s partly the point, isn’t it? Volpone’s idolatry was never really focused on something that had real value.
One of the most relieving things about a play like this is that Jonson does not at all need laughter to make comedy work. When Volpone nearly rapes Celia, what may have been a comic scene four hundred years ago was deadly serious. Janine DeMichele Baggett, as Celia, pled for her safety and wiped lipstick across her own cheek, in an arresting image that captured her rage against her own objectification. Her husband, played by Joe Folocco, was suitably filthy as a man who flips from being a jealous husband to being a willing cuckold in the time it takes him to see money on the other side. Jonson was surely using such a change to comment darkly on human frailty, like the way in which Volpone himself, masterfully played by Thom Gillott, finds that his feigned illness has become real over the course of the theatrical performance. Ashley Anderson is vibrant and delightful as Mosca; she is Volpone’s attendant spirit, and as her name would suggest she is a fly, lively a creature one can often find in places of corruption and death.
And though the fly’s food is not dignified, as Mosca, Anderson captures the hope and promise of wit and clarity. Though we might want a better world, Jonson seems to suggest that her sort of insight and pith might be the best we can hope for. As we sit in America during a strange time, I am inclined to take some satisfaction in the bite of a satire that seeks to reconcile human greed with justice.
The views expressed in this post are the author’s own.
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