Greed comes in many forms. And, in the Shakespeare Theatre's production of Ben Jonson's satire on that subject, "Volpone," several of those are assumed by actress Pat Carroll.
First, there's her trousers role as the title character. Like Falstaff, the gender-crossing lead she played here in 1990, Volpone is larger than life, and Carroll -- mustachioed, corpulent and moving with the self-satisfied swagger of the filthy rich -- once again proves up to the task.
But playing a man is hardly Carroll's only disguise. She also gets to feign illness -- Volpone's ploy to win more lucre from the sycophants vying to become his heir. And when that ploy isn't enough, Carroll revels in Volpone's disguises as a flamboyant mountebank and a modest officer of the court -- roles he adopts to further trick those even greedier than himself.
And as portrayed by some of the Shakespeare Theatre's finest veterans, adorned in whimsical costumes by designer Martin Pakledinaz and adroitly directed by Michael Kahn, the animalistic scavengers in this vicious fable offer a hilarious picture of greed incarnate.
Ted van Griethuysen's Voltore (the vulture) wears a black feathered ruff and expresses his acquisitive glee with sinister hissing noises; Floyd King's bent-over, nearly deaf and blind Corbaccio (the raven) is so avaricious, he'll disinherit his own son if that's what it takes to get Volpone's fortune; and Philip Goodwin's beak-nosed, mean-spirited Corvino (the crow) displays a terror of being cuckolded that is exceeded only by his terror of losing Volpone's treasure. Outdoing them all, however, is Wallace Acton as Volpone's servant and scheming partner, Mosca (the fly).
For contrast, Jonson supplied these venal characters with foils who are innocent and pure of heart, and Shannon Parks is particularly winning as Corvino's pious, gentle, much-abused wife.
But goodness isn't funny or biting, so Jonson didn't dwell on it, and director Kahn makes sure it's offset with plenty of colorful vice. When Volpone's retinue -- a hermaphrodite (Rick Hammerly in codpiece and brassiere), eunuch (smooth-voiced Towson State alum Charles Gray) and dwarf (a laughably lecherous Mark Povinelli) -- entertain him, they perform songs composed by Catherine MacDonald in styles that vary from British music hall to modern Euro-pop musical theater.
Such stylistic liberties -- which include the prop of a hospital crash cart -- aren't merely good fun, though this production is rollicking good fun. The anachronisms are also a way of showing that this period comedy attacking greed is as relevant to our own period as it was to Jonson's, almost 400 years ago. Heck, maybe more so, as revelations of the recent $323.5 million bank fraud scheme would suggest.
Where: Shakespeare Theatre, 450 7th St., N.W., Washington
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, with matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, and noon May 1. Through June 2
Call: (202) 393-2700