In 1606, Shakespeare’s great contemporary, Ben Jonson, wrote Volpone. A very dark comedy about greed, it features con men, tightwads and whores, all chasing after a “dying” old man’s money (and we use the term “dying” advisedly). These folks stoop to almost any depth; everything’s negotiable when the money’s on the line.
Volpone’s a very funny play, and an all-too-astute reading of human nature. (We’ve all known people who’ve snowed a failing relative in order to get them to change their will.) Jonson’s humor has a cruel aspect you don’t often find in the popular Shakespearean comedies that are familiar to contemporary Americans as summer-festival productions.
In the 1970s, writer/producer Larry Gelbart revised Volpone as Sly Fox. Gelbart is deft with comedy (and conscience). He co-wrote the screenplay for Tootsie and helped create the TV series M*A*S*H. Gelbart moved the Volpone story to San Francisco in the late 1800s. The setting suits the Woodland Opera House—the most beautiful historic theater in these parts—that was built around the same time.
The Woodland Opera House production is high-end community theater, with a pretty set (designed by Jeff Kean) and a fairly large cast. Director Lydia Venables gives the show a well-scrubbed feel. It’s not nearly as wicked as it might be considering the seamy characters, cold betrayals and general lack of ethics, but there are still plenty of laughs. Look for fine performances from old Micail Buse (hobbling around as a superannuated skinflint) and Dean Shellenberger (previously in Woodland’s Picnic and Main Street Theatre Works’ Rainmaker) as the clever indentured servant Simon Able.