at Dunster House through Dec. 10

The Dunster House dining room is illuminated by two gargantuan chandeliers, each consisting of three concentric circles of lightbulbs. The bottom and outermost circle contains sixteen bulbs, the middle fourteen, and the top ten. Nothing spectacular, mind you, but a pleasant distraction from the business being presented at the far end of the room.

There the Dunster House Drama Society has made the mistake of staging Ben Johnson's Volpone, a play as unsuited to student production as any ever written. Its central characters are mostly lecherous old men, its settings myriad, and its comic style demanding of the highest caliber of acting. The fact that Volpone can also lay claim to being one of the greatest comedies ever written becomes irrelevant under the weight of all the obstacles it presents to an untrained cast.

First there is the problem of age -- a problem which director John Munger has found no solution for whatsoever. His Volpone, played by Peter Goldberg, could possibly be pushing 30, but that's it. The parasite Mosca, played by Chris Baker, looks unmistakably teenage (he even has a preppie haircut to match). Voltore and Corvino, who need only appear verging on middle-age, don't at all.

The aged Corbaccio, it is true, has an elderly look about him. But the hair-spray and bent condition with which Alec Walker achieves his decay have fake written all over them. Besides, Corbaccio really looks the right age for Volpone, Volpone for Mosca, and Mosca for the young Bonario, who, as played by Jim Brook, might be a recent graduate of Miss Hewett's Nursery School for the Self-Conscious Aesthete.

To evaluate each performance apart from the problem of age is almost like discussing the career of Quasimodo apart from the Inquisition. Yet the actors as individuals cannot be held responsible for their collective failure. Within the all-too-Hasty-Pudding concept of the whole production, some of the cast members fill their parts quite competently. Chris Baker, though ridiculously miscast as Mosca, delivers a good comic aside, moves comfortably around the stage, and neatly captures the slyness of the character. Peter Goldberg's Volpone is one-note throughout, since he is physically unable to simulate death-bed sickliness; otherwise Goldberg achieves a sadly uncomic lechery that fills the role, but hardly realizes it.

Among the other actors, Judith Namias and John Allman rise above their compatriots. Jane Jackson makes the tedious Lady Would-Be into a funny but off-times unintelligible character. Paul Gomberg struggles vainly to overcome his costume, a purplish concoction which, like most of the costumes, doesn't quite make it.

Whatever the difficulties of installing Volpone's four different settings in a House Dining room, one could have expected at least an attractive backdrop or two. Designer Jeremy Kagan has created something which defies description; it is to scenery what Medusa was to women.

Consequently one grasps for distraction. Even the little light-bulbs in the chandeliers have a limited interest potential, so I solved the problem by walking out in intermission. Yet how much simpler it would have been not to have gone at all.