No one actually says, “All the world’s a chicken coop, and all the men and women merely pullets” in Ben Jonson’s Volpone, but few who catch Michael Kahn’s enormously funny staging of the Jacobean farce for Shakespeare Theater will doubt that those words served as his directorial maxim. Patrons aware that Pat Carroll dons trousers to play the lead (as she did in the company’s Merry Wives of Windsor) will doubtless expect an evening of comic gender-bending, but what matters gender when one’s co-stars belong to altogether different species?
For make no mistake, Kahn’s audacious vision of this sly-fox farce is populated by whole gaggles of predatory odd ducks hellbent on currying favor with the supposedly on-his-deathbed title character in hopes of being remembered in the rich old faker’s will. Jonson’s Volpone may be a peculiar comedy—unlikely to provoke outright laughter through dialogue, so bleak and unyielding is its view of human nature—but that doesn’t mean it can’t be goosed into comic life between the lines.
And that’s precisely what Kahn and his Shakespeare Theater cohorts do, from the moment designer Derek McLane’s smudged gray walls split apart, freeing Volpone’s henchmen to scramble up ladders and skitter around his bed readying their master for his daily larcenies. If the factotums seem to dance a bit as they do this, rest assured that Kahn has more than mere high spirits in mind. With four vaudeville numbers highlighting the hitherto unsuspected terpsichorean talents of Volpone’s dwarf, hermaphrodite, and eunuch, this staging very nearly qualifies as the musical-comedy version of Volpone. But it’s the script’s avian imagery that most intrigues the director, and he wastes no time exploiting it.
When the first of the evening’s birds of prey—the lawyer Voltore (Ted van Griethuysen)—arrives deathbedside bearing golden tribute, his nose’s sharp downward curve, eyes wide with greed, and crests of hair that rise in twin peaks from his temples would give him the appearance of a wise but hungry owl even were his gait not a hesitant, sideways shuffle. The dark ruffles and lace that adorn his cloak suggest feathers so explicitly you half expect his head to turn a full 360 degrees as he covetously surveys the room.
His thick-goggled, ear-trumpeted rival, Corbaccio (Floyd King) is more the myopic buzzard, bent with age so that his face is aimed directly at the floor as he hops around Volpone’s room searching, perhaps, for carrion. Bedraggled, featherlike tufts of hair sprout at odd angles from his otherwise bald pate. But if they—and his deafness and nearsightedness—make him an easy object of ridicule, his palsied hands can’t help giving pause. They’re unambiguously talons, as suitable for tearing flesh as for scribbling the new will with which he’ll shortly disinherit a loving son.
Also at once comic and malignant is a ravenous raven of a merchant named Corvino (Philip Goodwin), whose arms flap in alarm as he proffers trinkets he stole from nests better feathered than his own. A strutting, cawing creature, Corvino speaks with a Daffy Duck lithp while keeping his innocent wife (Shannon Parks) locked in an aerie. Considerably less threatening, but no less money-hungry, is Lady Politic Would-Be (Helen Carey), who, being married to a red-crested bantam (Emery Battis) and attended by two partridgelike ladies in waiting, understandably behaves like a vainglorious peahen, clucking, screeching, and preening before mirrors when she’s not pecking at the eyes of imagined rivals.
That these greedy idiots are working at cross-purposes makes them easy gulls for Volpone’s schemes, all of which are aimed at cynically exploiting in others the very vices he most relishes in himself. Wearing avarice and lechery as naturally as the furry auburn velvets in which costumier Martin Pakledinaz has cloaked her, Carroll seems more badger than fox as she huddles in Volpone’s lair. She’s looking increasingly like Orson Welles when she dons whiskers these days, but that just makes her a more formidable guardian of the glowing piles of gold secreted beneath Volpone’s floorboards.
Perhaps inevitably, being pretty much restricted to bed while feigning illness, Carroll ends up being the least animated person on the premises, but she still manages to mine the character’s snarling machinations and feverish moans for plenty of laughs. She comes late to the evening’s most uproarious scene—the moment in a courtroom when all her opponents are briefly cooped up together, furiously flapping and squawking and pecking—which means she’s not there when King’s nearsighted buzzard gets an almost minute-long laugh simply by staring at Carey’s ample (breast-of-peacock?) bosom.
Fortunately, Carroll works neatly in tandem with the larcenous proxy that Jonson provided for his hero—the parasitic Mosca (Wallace Acton), who lives up to a name meaning “gadfly” by buzzing obsequiously around each of Volpone’s visitors, busily fingering plumes that sprout from his cap like feathery antennae. Acton is sublimely funny whether struggling in Carroll’s smothering embrace or pontificating at his master in a dunce-cap-and-cape outfit that briefly makes him look like Mickey Mouse in Fantasia’s “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” segment. Their fraud-preparing téte-a-tétes are delicate exercises in restrained giddiness, yet neither performer slights the menace that inflects the characters’ crooked schemes.
Anthropomorphism isn’t the only trick the director has up his sleeve. Prop jokes abound, from the scales-of-justice seating that designer McLane provides for the courtroom’s matched pair of judges, to the cape-accidentally-turned-skirt that provides a kicker for a cross-dressing sequence. And if Volpone’s hermaphrodite, eunuch, and dwarf have been reduced to singing sight gags by cuts in the script, they truly are hilarious ones. Rick Hammerly, so perfect as Bette Davis last season at MetroStage, makes a fetching Shakespearean debut in goatee and bra as Androgyno. Charles Gray gamely swivels Castrone’s testosterone-deprived hips (they’re huge, inflated by billowy bloomers). And in a randy-dwarf role that might easily have descended into stereotype, pint-size Mark Povinelli is such a high-kicking, appealingly winsome find that it’s easy to imagine height-challenged nontraditional casting becoming a one-man vogue at area stages.
Howell Binkley’s crisp, space-defining lighting, Karma Camp’s showbizzy choreography, and Catherine MacDonald’s cartoon-inspired music are also sure assets, marshaled by Shakespeare Theater artistic director Kahn with a surprisingly elated, uncharacteristically Woolly Mammothish flair. Perhaps dealing with Jonson, a less sacrosanct author than the company’s namesake—albeit one who was a 17th-century buddy of the Bard’s—has liberated him. Perhaps Kahn just got a kick out of working with a script so rife with plummy caricatures that he could stylize the hell out of it. Whatever. A slight attenuation in its middle stages notwithstanding, the production flies. If the company didn’t have to mount its annual Free-for-All at Carter Barron in a couple of months, it could doubtless run Volpone through the summer.CP