Red Bull Theater’s Reading of Ben Jonson’s Volpone!

This past Monday, Red Bull Theater presented a live Zoom reading of Ben Jonson’s Volpone, or the Fox, directed by Jesse Berger. And then it streamed through the week essentially free but recommended as a pay what you can viewing. As with their other offerings over the past year, this online reading made an impressive use of their actors and modern technology while we are still away from in person theater. To fully experience a 500 year old comedy via 21st Century Zoom has been very rewarding…and RBT’s Volpone pushes the technology even further!

And as the Avocatori (judge) tells us as we are invited into the play, “The place is Venice and Zoom. The time is 1607 and now”. And so it is.

screen capture by Ed Heinzelman

One of the things that Red Bull Theater does impressively and subtly is make up for the lack of a set and stage scenery with very effective and appropriate Zoom backgrounds. If you look at the various screen captures that I have included here you’ll see excerpts from drawings or prints that say 17th Century Venice and the lines work their way from the overall background to the individual character windows. Something that you don’t necessarily notice but makes the reading far more effective as a play.

And as everyone’s Zoom experience grows, we are seeing more elaborate costuming and makeup. This play in particular goes all out and maybe just a little over the top at times…some characters are obviously in Jacobean dress while a few others are strictly steam punk! for instance:

screen capture by Ed Heinzelman

or maybe:

screen capture by Ed Heinzelman

And something else that I’ve been leaning into, after watching a number of RBT readings, is their gender neutral and race neutral casting. It’s been a joy to experience and has added a new understanding of what theater can do. But in this case I am not sure that the gender neutral casting of Carbaccio and Corvino worked quite so well. I found it a bit distracting that these two male characters were played by women…at times I got a little lost from the story line by the cross casting.

One other important talent to have when performing in Zoom is the ability to tell even more of the story than might be normal on stage with your voice and facial expressions. And of course being able to play to the small camera is also a key talent.

But this time, in Volpone, there were a few moments when the dialogue felt rushed and I lost track of the meter, rhyme, and poetry in Jonson’s text, but that is a minor quibble I guess.

And here RBT has really honed their passing of props from character to character…since it can’t actually be accomplished physically…but they have rehearsed the timing and direction to make it feel more natural. And in the spirit of a play of then and now, some of the music interludes included contemporary samples…charming and brought just a bit of a smile.

And the finale! virtual applause all round:

screen capture by Ed Heinzelman

Editor’s note 6/19/2021: adding a ‘Bull Session’ including a cast member and the director giving us some inside perspective on this presentation:

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