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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
A somewhat unfair interpretation of the theory Machiavelli expounded on in a pamphlet called The Prince —a sort of how-to guide for the Renaissance period rulers with whom he sought to curry favor — has forever linked him with the image of a canny individual who will use power at any price. Machiavellian remains a favorite perjorative adjective to describe ruthless, power hungry individuals and governments.
Actually, Machiavelli was quite a patriot and not nearly the unprincipled fellow most of us envision. What's more, he had other interests, notably playwriting. His most famous play, The Mandrake, continues to receive occasional productions —a case in point: the venerable Pearl Theatre's current production, featuring a new translation by Peter Constantine and directed by Jim Calder.
Given Machiavelli's history with the ruling powers of Renaissance Italy and as a political theorist, if you've never read or seen The Mandrake, you might well go to the Pearl expecting a weighty drama about power politics. But you'd be wrong. What you'll witness is a madcap romp that revolves around an improbable scheme for impregnating the beautiful wife of an older man she detests and, as a bonus, to awaken her sexually. In short, this is a ribald farce that's as broad as broad can be, full of the sort of knee-slapping comic business that we nowadays refer to as shtick.
The Mandrake's characters are the ordinary folks living in Florence during the author's lifetime. Their concerns are not governance and power but revolve around dreams for a happy ordinary life. The new starts for which they all yearn involve personal prosperity, resolving sexual frustrations, making wishes for children come true.
But hold on. There's a reason The Mandrake has proved to be a happier legacy for its author than his political theories. Beneath the hairbrained scheme, the double entendres and the raunchy physical comedy this is a play with a theme not too dissimilar from Machiavelli's political theory that it often takes ethical compromise to survive in a corrupt world. Thus his characters are all easily persuaded to lie and deceive, or close their eyes to being deceived, in order to improve their lives. In short, The Mandrake puts a comic spin on the maxim, "the end justifies the means", which had its origins wat before it became associated with Machiavelli.
To boil the rather ridiculous story down to its essence: Callimaco (Eric Steele) has returned to his native Florence after years of living in Paris in order to get a first-hand look at the beautiful Lucrezia (Rachel Botchan). She turns out to live up to her reputation as a great beauty and Callimaco becomes determined to become her lover. The problem is that Lucrezia is already married. However, the marriage is in enough trouble to allow Callimaco, with an assist form his manservant Siro (Edward Seamon), to dream up and actually carry out an improbable scheme with happy results. The scheme involves Lucrezia's pragmatic and not too moral mother Sostrata (Carol Schultz), Ligurio (Bradford Cover), a former marriage broker and down on his luck scam artist, and an easily bribed priest (T. J. Edwards). And oh yes, there's a potion made from the mandrake root that is guaranteed to have copulation lead to conception, its downside for Callimaco being that it's supposed to kill the male sexual partner within eight days.
Set designer Harry Feiner has transformed the Pearl's stage into a colorful Florentine piazza with Callimaco's house as well as that of the foolish lawyer and his wife. The Nicia establishment features a view of the bedroom where we watch nothinng happening between husband and wife and, eventually and inevitably, everything coming up roses for Callimaco and Lucrezia.
Peter Constantine's translation has a nice modern feel. Unlike the Joseph Papp Public Theater's 1977 Mandrake which had a solo prologue delivered by that production's translator, Wallace Shawn, Mr. Calder's uses of the entire cast to deliver a musical prologue, with a servant woman (Rocelyn Halili) introducing the cast. It's a nice touch which makes for a neat book-ending epilogue. Calder's direction generally is less fortuitous. His approach to the physical gags is too heavy handed and tends to diminish Machiavelli's wit.
While Pearl regulars Dominic Cuskern and Bradford Cover make the most of their meaty parts, Carol Schultz is pretty much relegated to the role of an extra. Rachel Botchan also has little opportunity to really shine. Pearl newcomer, Eric Steele, is an okay but too sappy Calimaco but I would have liked to see the company's best young actor, Sean McNall, tackle this derring-do romantic schemer. Maybe with McNall in the lead Machiavelli's still often funny satire would have been funnier and sexier, and less disposed to show its age as it all too often does now. That said, the Pearl Theatre Company is to be commended for reminding us that Machiavelli is as much to be remembered for being witty and amusing than a cunning political spinmeister.
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