I want to be in a John Murphy play before I die. It looks like the most fun an actor could possibly have.
Murphy has taken Ben Jonson’s dark Italianate comedy of greed from 1606 and turned it into a brilliant musical circus and rave up. University-educated Jonson wrote his plays in a language even more obscure to the modern ear than Shakespeare’s. Murphy’s adaptation preserves much of Volpone’s original text but slyly lards it with contemporary references—Sam Sullivan, Led Zeppelin, Uma Thurman—and exhaustingly energetic, imaginative comic direction that makes it all easily accessible without cheapening the satire. At almost three hours the show feels way too long. But with a top ticket price of only $16, Volpone has to be the best entertainment value in town.
Volpone (Drew McCreadie) and his servant Mosca (Erin Wells playing a man with funny, complex references to her own gender) are con artists who pretend that Volpone is rich, heirless, and dying. A parade of greedy suckers give Volpone expensive gifts, money, and even their wives’ bodies in the hopes that he’ll leave everything to them. Complications ensue and everyone gets their just reward.
Murphy treats Volpone’s world as a circus with a bearded lady (Tara Goerzen) as ringmaster, surrounded by freaks and clowns, all dressed up in Sydney Cavanagh’s wonderful costumes. At regular intervals the cast of twelve break into cabaret-style songs, written by Murphy with Jeff Gladstone. The music and singing are excellent. Tallulah Winkelman on squeezebox and sweet-voiced 11-year-old Chloe Doucet-Winkelman are standouts. But McCreadie on electric guitar doing “Volpone Blues” has to be seen to be believed.
McCreadie is a terrific comedian and Wells’s Mosca, the straight man, threads a beautifully controlled choreography through the play. But nearly everyone in this talented cast of mixed amateurs and professionals stands out. Sebastian Kroon’s insanely apoplectic misogynist Corvino is insanely funny. Brian Anderson’s British Sir Politick does some hilarious verbal improv, and Kerry Allchin has a bravura courtroom turn as the lawyer Voltore.
Murphy’s no-holds-barred comic imagination is seen to fine effect in the trial scene where he has characters react to dramatic testimony with choruses of “rhubarb, rhubarb.” Just when you think the joke is going stale, he comes up with a variation on it that yields explosive laughter. The gags-a-minute ratio in this production is at least three or four to one, and most of them work. Actor/writer/director Murphy is a triple-threat genius, our next Morris Panych, only funnier.
Attention Bill Millerd: this show needs to be up on the Arts Club stage next year, a little tighter and slicker and a half-hour shorter.