Greed’s not so good in ‘Volpone,’ being performed at CSN

Picture them as the Elizabethan Smothers Brothers.

Abruptly halting his harpsichord-playing, Ben Jonson exclaims: “Posterity always liked you best!”

Pausing on his lute, William Shakespeare gives him a sidelong glance and smirks.

Tis true. Willie garnered history’s raves. Bennie amounted to his literary knave.

“There was speculation they were both drinking heavily the night before Shakespeare died and that Ben Jonson may have had something to do with that,” says Doug Baker, veteran director and theater professor at the College of Southern Nevada. “But of course that’s speculation.”

Tsk-tsk, B.J. Just because you weren’t the Big Elizabethan Kahuna? “They were contemporaries, and he was considered a great writer, but not as great as Shakespeare,” Baker says. “He was poor when he died. He had nothing left.”

Fickle mistress, history is. All those plays and poems, only to wind up as Tom Smothers to Shakespeare’s Dick. Yet some theater companies respect Jonson’s satirical mojo, such as CSN’s theater department, which presents his “Volpone” this weekend, readers theater-style, at the North Las Vegas campus.

“It’s one of his most famous,” says Baker, backstage at the BackStage theater before a rehearsal, he and his cast awaiting their delayed leading man, on his way from class at the college’s Charleston Boulevard outlet.

“There are a lot of theater companies that do some kind of Shakespeare in town. We wanted our students to know he was a contemporary of Shakespeare, what his writing was like.”

Bennie J. prose? Try even more dense than the Bard’s flowery mouthfuls of dialogue. “It’s a challenge,” Baker says. “He doesn’t use three or four metaphors like Shakespeare does, he uses 20. I’ve cut it quite a bit so it’s understandable.”

Skewering human greed centuries before Gordon Gekko slithered onto movie screens declaring its goodness, “Volpone” revolves around the title character, a Venetian gentleman — and canny con artist — pretending to be on his deathbed to swindle a lawyer, a merchant and an old miser.

Each arrives with pricey gifts for Volpone, hoping to be named in his will as his heir, while Volpone’s servant, Mosca, fools each into believing they’ve succeeded.

“I am the scam,” says Ray Reilly, who plays Mosca. “They all think he’s pretty much comatose, so I have to convince them to give him their money and gifts. It’s probably the most different character from me that I’ve ever played. I’d get tripped up if I tried to tell as many lies as Mosca does.”

Unlike today, when America’s rich are routinely roasted by critics — can you say “bank bailouts,” “bonuses,” “golden parachutes” and “tax cuts for the rich”? — Jonson defied his era’s traditional mores by penning this scathing satire.

“It was gutsy for the time because the wealthy are mocked,” Baker says. “He gets too greedy and gets caught in the end. Some things never seem to change, even after 400 years.”

(Caught? Nowadays? Seen any bailed-out bankers in orange jumpsuits lately?)

Set to be performed by a cast of 22 with scripts in hand, “Volpone” is ready to be rehearsed this night. Striding back into the BackStage from back stage, Baker surveys his waiting cast, most seated in a semicircle center stage, though each eventually will rise to enter a scene.

“Readers Theater” does not equal “static theater,” as Baker has woven movement and action into this presentation.

“He’s still not here?” Baker asks about his leading man, still somewhere on Charleston Boulevard on his way to the Cheyenne Avenue campus. “Well, let’s get started.”

Taking on the titular role, Baker dives into a delicious scene of scheming opposite Reilly’s Mosca with mouth-watering relish — enough to cast doubt over whether he really wants his leading man to ever escape Charleston Boulevard.

Contact reporter Steve Bornfeld at sbornfeld@ or 702-383-0256.

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