Coming Soon! Red Bull Theater’s Reading of Ben Jonson’s Volpone, or the Fox!

You might say that during the pandemic I became smitten with the Red Bull Theater. Here is their goal in life: “RED BULL THEATER brings rarely seen classic plays to dynamic new life for contemporary audiences. Our work unites a respect for tradition with a modern sensibility.”

And during the pandemic they have presented a number of classic plays via pay what you can Zoom readings and as I have posted previously, seemed to have managed to harness some of the best attributes of Zoom for live theater readings.

courtesy of the Red Bull Theater

And now they are about to bring one of the great classic playwrights, Ben Jonson, to their Zoom theater! Again, a pay what you can performance done live on Monday night June 14th at 7:30 PM EDT. After the live stream on Monday night, the recorded version will be available until Friday evening, June 18th at 7:00 PM EDT. So you will have multiple opportunities to enjoy the play reading during the week. So that’s my spiel…here’s some more info from their Volpone page!

Meet Volpone, the rich old magnifico, whose ingenious schemes and farcical scams dupe his wealthy friends into showering him with gold. This feast of extraordinary language and outrageous characters is a merciless satire that delightfully skewers the selfish manipulations of hypocrites—without excusing the greed and gullibility of their victims. Against scoundrels cloaked in propriety and legal dodgings, the virtuous are practically defenseless—and even the judge is on the make.  Is Volpone the sly fox…or the outfoxed?

And visit the link above for more information about the play, Ben Jonson, and the reading itself!

other AIP posts @ Red Bull: Red Bull Theater Reads MJ Kaufman’s GALATEA!, Red Bull Theater Reads John Lyly’s Gallathea, RBT: The Woman Hater.

Red Bull Theater Reads MJ Kaufman’s GALATEA!

Last week the Red Bull Theater in conjunction with WP Theater presented a reading of MJ Kaufman’s Galatea Or Whatever You Be. This is the contemporary book end to their reading of John Lyly’s 16th Century play, Gallathea. If you want to read my overly long response to the Lyly plan, have at it here!

Lyly’s play pushes the Elizabethan limits on gender roles and gender identity fairly clearly and that came to some surprise to this writer when I watched the play. But given the necessity of having male actors play female roles in that era, in retrospect it could be anticipated that some gender fluidity may have been ‘tolerated’ at the time.

But Kaufman’s Galatea, described at one point as “loosely based on John Lyly’s 1585 play…” makes its magic with contemporary language and pulls the play into current 21st Century gender identity acceptance and certainly tries to lead the way to where society eventually needs to go.

Director Will Davis makes the most of the modern interpretation…the play gets pretty boisterous at times…the players much more animated…and the story simply runs forward without distraction.

Again the two main characters are Galatea and Phillyda, marvelously played by Futaba Shioda and Jo Lampert respectively. Galatea and Phillyda are two young woman who are dressed in boy’s clothing and sent to the woods by their fathers…because their village is faced with a historical legacy of placating an angry Neptune by sacrificing a fair virgin every five years…and the five year ‘festival’ is just about upon us.

Futaba Shioda (courtesy of Red Bull Theater)
Jo Lampert (courtesy of Red Bull Theater

In the woods, you can be who ever you want to be.

Needless to say the two encounter each other in the woods and intend to learn how to be a boy from the other. But of course it doesn’t go as planned as they each start to fall for the other. And again their word play and conversations reveal their ‘true identities’ to us the knowing audience although not quite apparent to each other…but being modern characters they go with their feelings. Kaufman has a little fun here in as the characters talk about being boys playing girls being boys ala both Elizabethan practice and the casting for this presentation. The writing is exceptionally well done and both actors play it to the hilt, really bringing out all of the nuances, irony, and humor in the text. One thing that I did miss in this modern interpretation is some of the poetry inherent in Lyly’s dialogue for Galatea and Phillyda in the original. But it would be somewhat out of place here.

how I love, whatever you be…

And the under story here is more direct as it is plain how Cupid takes umbrage with being spurned by the nymphs of the goddess Diana and decides to have a little fun with them. So after a few well spent arrows, the nymphs, who are ‘normally devoted to “lesbian separatist solidarity,”’ are smitten with the Galatea and Phillyda as boys. And all types of tricks and nonsense ensues.

The other character who has much to say despite little time on stage is Hebe, the lucky virgin who is selected to be the sacrificial offering but is ultimately spurned by Neptune. Again she runs the rant from not being fit for the role since there are fairer maidens about, to being angry that she has been spurned. But she is also self aware that she is a character in a play as she gloats that she has the longest solo speech! Hebe is incredibly on point and played by Pooya Mohseni who double dips by also playing the goddess Venus and a nymph, Ramia, at other points in the play.

Pooya Mohseni (courtesy of Red Bull Theater)

And then we have the denouement where everything is revealed, everyone dies, or everything gets made right. This one is a combination of the first and last…with some ambiguity to boot.

Venus shows up to retrieve her son Cupid from Diana…she convinces Neptune to drop his five year retribution on the town and essentially blesses the union of Galatea and Phillyda, but to satisfy the social mores of that time and even of the contemporary era, she promises to change one of the girls into a boy at the church before their wedding, to satisfy the presumed heterosexual nature of marriage. Except like Hebe, these young woman are aware of their place in the play and announce that unlike that other play, they just aren’t going to show up at the church and will live their lives as they desire.

screen capture by AIP

Now, Kaufman has played with gender fluidity through out the play. And director Davis pushed it even further with his casting…filling the roles with incredible actors despite what an audience might expect for the gender of each or any character. It works really well here and I imagine this will eventually be less a surprise on stages in the future.

courtesy of Red Bull Theater
screen capture by AIP

OK…this got pretty long too…it’s a good thing that Kaufman dropped the whole stranded brothers gig…it doesn’t work anyway. LOL!

Red Bull Theater Reads John Lyly’s Gallathea

Love conquers all things but itself

and ladies all hearts but their own

from the coda in Gallathea

The Red Bull Theater managed to confound me once again with their outstanding reading of a classic play that I was totally unaware of…and all the while I am wondering how to write about it without spoilers! Spoilers? The play was written by John Lyly in 1585 and first performed New Year’s Day 1588. How could there possibly be spoilers? So spoil on I will!

This play comes across as incredibly contemporary and Red Bull plays into that feeling. I will admit I was a bit suspicious by that aspect at first given the age of the play…but it is true to its history. The one issue modern viewers may suffer from is out lack of a robust classical education. We will recognize the Roman gods who are primary characters here but won’t necessarily know their interpersonal histories or relationships…and that may inhibit some of our understanding of the underlying humor. But Mr. Lyly does an admirable job of explaining their attributes as they are introduced, so we do understand why they are resident to the play.

And our story: Through its history, a small waterfront town has angered Neptune by destroying his temple. His retribution is that every five years the fairest maiden is to be tied to an oak tree dedicated to him and she is taken away by the monster Agar. Well the fifth year is upon us and it is time to select the maiden. So our opening scenes are two fathers with fair young daughters who are determined to protect them from Neptune.

First we encounter Tityrus and his daughter Gallathea clad in boy’s clothing. Tityrus had brought Gallathea to Neptune’s tree and explains the situation and his intention to protect her by hiding her gender. Gallathea objects that this goes against her body and mind and it would be better to consent to the sacrifice and die honorably to protect the village than live a lie. But eventually consent she does and is sent out into the woods to hide until the fateful day has passed.

And then we meet Melebeus with a similar scheme and he presents his plan to his daughter, Phillida, who is also dressed as a boy. She too protests a bit but quickly acquiesces to the will of her father. And then she too is sent into the woods to hide until it is safe to return.

Now, we are all familiar with women who assume male personas in Elizabethan plays and it usually results in a bit of playful mayhem and a great deal of comedy, and Lyly gives us exactly that in spades.

Of course Gallathea and Phillada meet in the wood and are drawn to each other…mainly they state because they are unsure how to act like boys and want to use the other for a role model. Of course that breaks down almost immediately as they realize how ‘fair’ the other appears and would take them for a maiden if they in fact weren’t a boy. And of course they start to develop feelings for each other assured that it is okay since they are a maiden and the other is a boy. But as we listen in on their conversations, they aren’t quite sure.

And here is one of the best parts of the play as Gallathea and Phillida question each other on their backgrounds and gender and history. Olivia Rose Barresi plays Gallathea and Layla Khoshnoudi plays Phillida and these two actors display the coy, the flirt, the doubt, and the growing affection in the scene very clearly…it is surprising that they don’t understand the truth of the matter as it is clear to us as the audience. And Barresi and Khoshnoudi also hit all of the humor high notes and the swing and sway of the poetry in their lines and play off each other in just an assured and amazing way. And by the time we are done here they are clearly in love with each other.

There are two sub-plots here…the first quite necessary…brings Cupid to the fore as he causes anguish amongst the chaste nymphs of Diana by causing them to fall in love. This brings an angry Diana to enslave Cupid and she destroys his bows and arrows. The will bring Venus to appear a bit later in the amazing conclusion.

The other sub-plot isn’t as obvious to me as a 21st Century denizen. We have three brothers shipwrecked nearby who set off to make their fortunes in the woods and instead have misadventures with a number of masters of dubious arts. Now they may simply be comic relief and their lines would certainly lend credence to that. They may be proof that the lads of the period are NOT worthy of our two female protagonists. Or they may have been a necessary device to employ as many actors as possible in the play. (If you have ideas, I’d like to hear them)

Now the play gets dark. Tityrus and Melebeus deny having fair daughters and without Gallathea nor Phillida about, no one can prove otherwise…so the forlorn Haebe is selected as the sacrifice. And Haebe has a lot to say about her plight in the highest drama soliloquy this side of the Avon. She decries her fate in the most direct and dire fashion and denies…denies being the fairest. And then apparently Agar doesn’t accept her as the sacrifice because she isn’t fair enough? OH talk about woman scorned. Helen Cespedes gives us all of the drama and humor resident in Haebe.

And then Deus et Deus et Deus ex machina. And we have the denouement as all of our major characters appear…Neptune to wreak havoc on the town for their trying to fool him and the still angry Diana and Venus in search of her Cupid and of course all of our mortals to suffer their fates. But Venus takes the lead here. When the ruse around Gallathea and Phillida is exposed and it is discovered that they love each other…she is willing to accept that. The other gods maybe not so much nor the fathers…but Venus brokers a peace between Neptune and the town and Diana and Cupid and gets Cupid released. And promises to allow Gallathea and Phillida to marry but she will change one to a boy at the church. And despite their earlier protestations when being dressed in boy’s clothing, each is readily accepting of that given the opportunity to stay with the other while each father objects to his daughter being changed. But Venus wins out and as Tityrus eventually shrugs, what can you do, they’re gods. But guess what, that transformation never happens.

Now, I have certainly gone on too long about the play itself…and given you all the spoilers to be had. But on to the presentation of the reading.

screen shot from the Red Bull Theater Zoom reading of Gallathea captured by AIP

From a cast standpoint, RBT has perfectly selected actors who understand and play to the strengths of Zoom. Facial expressions and voice inflections are more important here that on the big stage. That is probably not an easy skill to pick up in a hurry but the RBT casts are now masters of that. Love you all!!!

And as you see from the screen shot, the technical staff has done wonders with tying the background together and presenting the cast clearly. During the play, the movement from one act to the next and one group of speaking roles to the next was fluid and seamless. Thank you for letting the audience get lost in the words and not notice the infrastructure! RBT is one of the best troupes at getting this right.

So what to do next? Well…starting tomorrow Red Bull Theater will be presenting a modern take on Gallathea with a reading of MJ Kaufman’s GALATEA, based on the play that I just described. Want to see it? It premieres live tomorrow evening and will be available to stream through Friday evening…Details HERE!

Presented in collaboration with WP THEATERGalatea is written by WP Playwrights Lab Alum MJ Kaufman (Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, How to Live on Earth), and directed by Will Davis (India Pale Ale, Men on Boats). The cast includes Grammy Award-winner Ty DefoeEsco Jouléy (High Maintenance), Jo Lampert (Hundred DaysJoan of Arc), Aneesh Sheth (Netflix’s Jessica Jones), Futaba Shioda (Rent 20th Anniversary tour), and TL Thompson (Is This a Room) and more.

I have some thoughts on the future of virtual theater rattling around in the recesses of my brain…I’ve mentioned that before…but this company is one of the reasons I feel there is a change coming!!