There were a lot of very pleasant surprises waiting for me in Classical Actors Ensemble’s latest double helping of verse plays from the past - the comedy Volpone by Ben Johnson, and Shakespeare’s tale of prejudice, love and justice The Merchant of Venice. As they’ve done in recent years, CAE has paired up plays with a lot of commonalities between them. Both here are set in Venice, both revolve a lot around money, and climax in compelling courtroom battles. In addition to the pleasant surprises, there were also some unexpected jolts that made me wonder about myself as an audience member (but we’ll get to those later).
“I pray you, lend me your dwarf.”
The biggest surprise about Volpone is that it still works so well as a script. Frankly, I was bracing myself for a musty, old, largely unfunny comedy with jokes that no longer translated. None of that was the case, which was an enormous relief. I was also waiting for the misogyny so often present in some of these older works to rear its head, and was very happy to be disappointed in this regard as well. Yes, the women characters here could be interpreted as dumb or even shrewish, but thanks to the actresses involved, they’re hilarious. The joke doesn’t appear to be at their expense, and they damn near walk off with the show any time they’re onstage. All of this is most welcome, because there’s a lot of play to get through here. Volpone ends up being longer than Merchant of Venice, which seems strange, but there you have it.
“I thought the odor of your good name would mean more to you.”
Volpone (Arthur Moss) is a greedy old cuss who pretends to be terminally ill in order to jerk around several equally greedy acquaintances of his. With the tireless help of his faithful servant Mosca (Joseph Papke), Volpone manages to trick three different men into thinking they are to be his heir after he dies (which should be “any day now”). In order to curry favor with Volpone, the three men are willing to do just about anything. Voltore (Alan Tilson), the lawyer, brings him gifts. Doddering, deaf old Corbaccio (Paul Brissett) is willing to disinherit his own son, Bonario (Jordon Johnson). And Corvino (Andy Schnabel) is willing to pimp out his dim-witted but faithful wife Celia (Stanzi D. Schalter).
“I fear I shall begin to grow in love with my dear self.”
Volpone also keeps a dwarf, a hermaphrodite and a eunuch around for entertainment: Nano (Thomas Henry), Androgyno (Jennifer Sisko), and Castrone (Ki Seung Rhee) - who I namecheck mainly because they’ve got some amusing bits around the edges. There’s another subplot that wouldn’t be worth mentioning except that it involves Lady Politic Would-Be (Nicole Goeden). Goeden does such off the charts vocal gymnastics, in terms of volume, affectation and intensity that her character almost shouldn’t work. But she’s so far over the top and around the bend again that I found it impossible not to be amused by her. She was in danger of stealing the show out from under other actors with more than twice her time on stage.
“Go home and die and stink.”
But here’s the thing, it’s not just her: everyone swings for the fences here. The danger with plays like this is that actors and directors can get so caught up in the language or the mechanics of it that they forget to present interesting and amusing characters. Not so with Volpone. The full cast (also including Travis Bedard, James Coward, Michael Quadrozzi, Mason Tyer, Daniel Kristian Vopava, and Joe Wiener) all create very specific, individualized comic cartoons of people, so that no scene was ever lopsided in terms of some people being interesting and others not. Director Joseph Papke, with assistance of Joe Wiener and Zach Curtis, made sure that no one was just coasting here, the whole cast is going full out. Dietrich Poppen’s set and lighting design creates a perfect world for both these plays to take place, and Marco T. Magno with assistance from Meghan Kent outfits everyone in such a way that Volpone looks like a comedy straight out of the Laurel and Hardy or Marx Brothers era.
“You shall live still, to delude these harpies.”
The challenge, of course, is that these are, ultimately, just cartoons of people. So it’s hard to care what happens to them, or work up much sympathy for them. It’s good, then, that they keep the audience laughing. Still, a little goes a long way, and if the thing had ended at intermission, I wouldn’t feel like I’d been cheated out of the full evening. And they still had a ways to go. Also, as good as everyone was, and as sharp a satire of avarice as the play Volpone is, I’m finding it hard these days to laugh at the foibles of rich people. It’s probably just the presidential politics hangover I have right now, but the knotty problem of income inequality and day to day economic struggles steals a little of the laughter from this for me.
“What judgment shall I dread, doing no wrong?”
The Merchant of Venice has a different problem, and unfortunately it’s baked into Shakespeare’s script - anti-Semitism. The character of Shylock (Joe Wiener), the money-lending Jew demanding his quite literal pound of flesh from his enemy, the Christian Antonio (Michael Lee), in payment for a debt on which Antonio defaulted, is the best known thing about this play. But this isn’t actually a discussion about the theological differences between the Jewish and Christian faiths. Shylock is a stereotypical greedy Jew, mean-spirited and perhaps even evil in his determination to cut a man open to exact revenge for slights which are never fully explained. The word “Jew” was spat out as an insult so many times I felt like I was at a Klan rally or seeing something straight out of pre-World War II Germany.
“I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys.”
The Merchant of Venice has passages, particularly in the second half, that are deeply unsettling. And if the play or the production were actually exploring the prejudice of these characters that would be one thing. But the production ends up giving a megaphone to the hate speech embedded in the script without providing any kind of counter-narrative or context. That’s unfortunately what you sign up for when you do The Merchant of Venice and there’s only so much anyone can do to make it the start and not the end of a useful conversation on the subject. Weirdly, even the homosexuality that is played for laughs in both Volpone and Merchant is not as off-putting or mean-spirited as the other prejudice on display (This is a step forward over some past CAE productions, so I was happy to see it).
“Fair thoughts and happy hours attend on thee.”
It’s a shame because there are a lot of good performances going on here, too. Both Wiener and Lee make the most of their roles. Wiener as Shylock has more material to work with, but Lee turns Antonio into a worthy adversary. Stanzi D. Schalter has been handed one of the meatier roles for women that Shakespeare ever wrote in Portia, and she puts her stamp on it. Portia is a roiling mix of humor, charm and intelligence, and Schalter somehow gives us all of that at once whenever she’s onstage. She’s a fully realized human in a way the characters in Volpone are not. Everyone in the Volpone ensemble gets to take a different turn here Merchant, under Kate Powers’ assured direction, which is a treat to watch. But I have to admit that the unrelenting verbal drumbeat of “Jew, Jew, Jew” that dominates the second half of the show (and is by no means absent in the first half), sours the experience for me of the romances, and the compelling prosecution of the case in court.
“Since I am a dog, beware my fangs.”
So why do we do plays like this? Heck, why do we do theater? I start to wonder sometimes if I’m just beginning not to like theater or find it relevant anymore. Then I see something like The Parchman Hour (at the Guthrie, of all places) and I’m reminded, yes, this is what a theater with resources and the right story can do. [I don’t write reviews of Guthrie plays because I work part time in the box office there - so either people would think I’m required to like things because of my paycheck, or I’m biting the hand that feeds me if I don’t like something. It’s a lose/lose situation.] But The Parchman Hour is not just exciting on its own merits, it feels like a major change in direction at an institution that most of the time over the years just didn’t have the same aesthetic I do. To be excited about theater in a place I’m not normally excited, that’s a welcome change.
“Why, ’tis an office of discovery, love. And I should be obscured.”
Volpone is a genuinely funny comedy, and maybe that’s all it needs to be or even could be. Something else I saw recently was very much the opposite. Also a great cast, also set in Venice, oddly enough. And I know I was supposed to laugh, and nearly everyone around me was laughing. But the misogyny in that old script was front and center in that production, the women didn’t get much of a chance to be anything other than bimbos or harpies. And the production chose to have everyone do a stereotypically thick Italian accent, which got old fast but never relented, and very quickly also started to seem racist. As a museum piece, that play would have served a purpose, but as modern entertainment, it did not. Volpone is still very much an entertainment without a lot of the baggage other shows have. So if you’re just looking for some very well orchestrated laughs, it’s definitely the ticket you need.
“The quality of mercy is not strain’d, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath: it is twice blest; it blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”
Lately, the question I keep coming back to, in my own work as well as others is, why are we telling this story, to this audience, at this time, in this way? You’re asking someone for two, two and a half, three hours of their life they’re not going to get back. What are you offering them in return? What do you feel you need to share with them? What do you want them to take away? It’s a daunting set of questions. The productions that puzzle me lately are the ones for which I can’t come up with an answer. “Because we can,” or “because we want to” seem like lopsided answers to me - ones that take into account only the theater and not the audience. To make people laugh and forget their troubles? Totally valid. To make people squirm and make them think? Also valid. On that level, Volpone and The Merchant of Venice make their case. (run through November 20, 2016 at Minneapolis Theater Garage)
4 stars - Highly Recommended
(photos: standing, Joe Wiener and Michael Lee as Shylock and Antonio in Merchant of Venice; in bed, Arthur Moss as Volpone - photographer: Lou Bedor III)