‘Volpone’ for the
From left, Francois Giroday, Apollo Dukakis,Anna C. Miller and Jay Bell in “Volpones” at A NoiseWithin.“
Shakespeare,” said Ben Jonson, “was not for an agebut for all time.” But Jonson himself is, in many ways, more durableand pertinent.
Shakespeare copulated with the universal; Jonson,in skewering the evils of a Jacobean society that sickened him, mayappear more temporal, but he possesses a tone of voice that speaksdirectly to our own age. Shakespeare was “gentle” and good-natured.Like contemporary filmmakers, he reveled in “feel-good” endings evenwhen the plays were tragedies. Jonson was a curmudgeon who always sawthe hole rather than the doughnut. Even when he neatly resolves hisplots according to the moral temper of his times, a foul odor seepsthrough the scented fragrance.
The spirit of Shakespeare breathes through theorderly plays of writers such as Neil Simon and Alan Ayckborne, butit is Jonson’s hard-nosed cynicism that pulsates beneath the work ofwriters such as David Mamet and Jon Robin Baitz. For all his insightsand philosophic understanding, Shakespeare would be lost in SouthCentral Los Angeles; Jonson would feel right at home.
“Volpone,” currently being revived in a productionby Art Manke at A Noise Within in Glendale, is a great comic snarl ofa play that puts forth the proposition that there are no depths towhich human beings will not sink in their desire for wealth. All buttwo of the major characters are tarred with avarice, and, curiously,the two innocents — a virginal wife and a disinherited son — aremorally unconvincing.
The two malevolent protagonists, Volpone (who usesthe pretext of an imminent demise to coax gifts from an assortment ofwould-be heirs) and Mosca (the kind of glib con man who is regularlyexposed on programs such as “60 Minutes”), are the twin monarchs of aworld that is predicated on rapacious greed. The l7th-century Venicedepicted in Jonson’s play is a horrifying mirror image of our ownpre-millennial Western society, and that is what makes the play bothchilling and apt.
But at A Noise Within, Jonson is being played forlaughs — which is legitimate so long as one recognizes that thelaughter has a cynical ring to it and that after human foibles havebeen exposed, inhuman iniquity must also be revealed.
The virtues of the production are that it isswift, energetic, streamlined and, given the sidewindings of itsdiscursive plot, perfectly compressed. The vices are that it is oftenplayed faster than the actors can effectively take it (and speedwithout definition is like a souped-up race car without a steeringwheel), and when the play itself drops its trousers to reveal itsdark underbelly, the company immediately hitches them up again andinsists on dispensing levity.
Dan Kern’s Volpone revels in trickery anddeception but lacks the voraciousness that gives this bitter comedyits tartness. François Giorday’s Mosca is the kind of used-carsalesman that would unload transmissionless Yugos onto unsuspectingout-of-towners. But where Jonson depicts diabolical corruption,Giorday gives us only zestful duplicity.
The production opens with a gaggle of black-robedvultures who, throughout the performance, perch above the action,acting as a kind of croaking Greek chorus that punctuates theentrances and exits of all the characters. We know that Jonson wasindicting mankind as rabid scavengers, but it is the play’s languageand situations that should be delivering that message. ToMickey-Mouse it with production touches and birdlike commedia masksis like sprinkling pesticide onto poison ivy.
Comparisons are odious but, in the case ofclassical revivals, inevitable, and one has to note that NicholasHytner’s production at the Alameida in London gave the play ametaphysical dimension that made it appear epic, and the 1930s Frenchfilm starring Harry Baur and Louis Jouvet, which eschewedstylizations, was like a cunning sermon delivered by a Jesuiticalpriest. This “Volpone” occasionally bruises and even lacerates, butnever draws blood.
Quibbles apart, I always arrive at A Noise Withingrateful to see work that other Los Angeles theaters instinctivelyshy away from, and always leave appreciating the ardor of theircommitment and the solid crunch of their ensemble work. Mysatisfaction in being able to experience Ben Jonson in Los Angelesalmost, but not quite, overrides my reservations about a company ofactors whose reach frequently exceeds their grasp. How boring itwould be if they didn’t.
Charles Marowitz writes regularly for TheJewish Journal from Malibu.