"Pray lend me your dwarf!"


By Ben Jonson
Directed by Twila Thompson
Westside Repertory Theatre
Non-union production (closed)
Review by John Chatterton

A man pretends to be dying, so as to extract gifts from rich men who want to be included in his will. The more they give him, the richer he gets, and the more they want his favor.

Rob Donaldson essayed the lead, and William Mullin his trusty servant Mosca (the Fly), with ease. They seemed to have been running this con game smoothly for years.

The host of minor parts offer -- and demand -- less. The chief victims of the scam, Voltore (Frank Nicolo), Corbaccio (M.A. Pizzuti), and Corvino (Russ Hamilton), named respectively for the vulture, crow, and raven, hung credulously on Volpone's every word (though Pizzuti's caricatured old man could apparently hear few of them). Nicolo played a lawyer whose greed gets the better of him; his reversal of conscience at the end, when marks and con men alike get their comeuppance from the judge (the dignified Ruthann Gereghty), was truly touching. Hamilton played a husband willing to pimp his wife to get on Volpone's good side with a not-so-suppressed violence that was scary. His wife, Celia (Claire Coward), was full of genuine loyalty for her shit of a husband and terror at being ``turned out.''

The subplot, involving a would-be English entrepreneur, Sir Politic Would-Be (the blandly amusing Peter Ruffett in a Jack-in-the-Box/Mad Hatter costume), his wife (Mary Coburn, who literally towered over the rest of the cast as a manic Southern belle and also had eyes on Volpone's fortune, among other things), Corbaccio's son Bonario (Trey Burvant), and a slimy English bounder (Kristen Freeley) demands a rewrite. It does offer the best line of the play, though, uttered by Lady Would-Be (``Pray lend me your dwarf.''). Said dwarf (the rubber-faced Jerilyn Sackler) was only short. Her severely dated comic character is paired with Volpone's hermaphrodite (played by Keitha Gray as dumb and blonde), the fillers of Volpone's time with idle and now-incomprehensible jests.

The above secondary characters labored hard -- and loud -- to bring to life material that has seen better days and that dragged down the second half of the longish evening. (Though the ending brought all the strands together, punishing the greedy marks as well as their foxy tormentor and Mosca, the fly in the ointment.)

The theatre is so small they painted Regina Garcia's scenery (a red schematic outline of buildings on a light background) on the walls, thereby saving the space (and money) taken up by flats. Economy of movement was assisted by an eclectic costume design by Sidney Fortner that gave the women hoop skirts without underlying petticoats. Light (Richard G. Tatum) was provided by a myriad of tiny bulbs that made everything bright -- if unvaryingly so -- except on the stage apron, because of a shortage of lights over the audience.

Sitting in the front row of the 35-seat, basement theatre ensured a good view -- but also ensured being bombarded by sound, almost to the threshold of pain. The enthusiastic troupe tended toward the top of its volume scale, rather than a level more appropriate to the intimate space.

(Technical note: heavy facial makeup cries out for matching makeup on the arms and hands.)

Director Thompson showed a solid command of the stage, with carefully worked blocking and serious attention to ensemble scenes. The actors went through their paces as an ensemble with energy and concentration. All in all, a credit to this struggling company dedicated to keeping alive a repertory that is hard to find, if at all, elsewhere in Manhattan. (Choreography by Jerilyn Sackler.)

Box Score:
Writing 2
Directing 2
Acting 1
Set 1
Costumes 1
Lighting/Sound 1
Copyright 1997 John Chatterton

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