Liza Vann and James Wetzel
in Machiavelli
(© Joan Marcus)
Liza Vann and James Wetzel
in Machiavelli
(© Joan Marcus)
The word "Machiavellian" has come to imply unscrupulousness and dishonesty, a political philosophy with the central credo that "the ends justify the means." However, scholars have long argued that Niccolo Machiavelli's seminal text The Prince is far more complex than that. Machiavelli seeks to partially rehabilitate the man's reputation, although author Richard Vetere is quick to note in the play that this is not a "historical rendition." Instead, Vetere has crafted a witty comedy that focuses as much on Machiavelli's family life as it does on his political machinations, if not more so.

The action begins in the year 1513, as Machiavelli (James Wetzel) is being tortured by military man Alfonso (Lex Woutas) under the order of Giuliano de' Medici (Chip Phillips). Machiavelli's wife, Marietta (Liza Vann), comes to plead his case and even engages in a minor indiscretion with Giuliano to help secure her husband's release. However, it is Machiavelli's own silver tongue that ultimately gains him not only his safety but also an elevated position in the Prince's court. His fast thinking saves him once again when the political winds shift in favor of Giuliano's nephew, Lorenzo (Jason Howard). However, things heat up when Machiavelli's daughter Baccina (Stephanie Janssen) expresses her desire to wed Lorenzo against her parents' wishes.

While the volatile political landscape of Renaissance Italy figures largely in the events of the play, the relationship between Machiavelli and Marietta is the work's greatest strength. Wetzel and Vann have a dynamic chemistry that makes their scenes together a joy to watch. Vetere depicts Marietta as her husband's equal when it comes to wit and wordplay, and she can hold her own against the brute force of any of the Medici clan. Janssen's Baccina is not so well developed, and the actress tends to telegraph her thoughts and intentions.

Phillips amuses as the clueless Giuliano, while Howard endows Lorenzo with a convincing insecurity to match his violent temper. The actor's clipped, deadpan delivery and deep voice add to the play's humor, especially when he's intoning lines such as "I hated school. No one to kill." Unfortunately, Woutas is far too affected as Alfonso; it's difficult to see him as the hardened military man that he's supposed to be. This actor also delivers the play's verse prologue and epilogue, addressed directly to the audience. These passages are the weakest in the script, spoken by Woutas in a sing-song fashion and incorporating heavy-handed references to our current political climate.

However, the rest of the play contains some crackling dialogue. Vetere's light, comic approach proves effective, especially under Evan Bergman's brisk direction. Despite the Renaissance setting, Maruti Evans' set is not ostentatious; there is a fairly simple central playing area, dominated by a metal gate representing a prison in the first act and double doors in the second to signify the shift in location to Machiavelli's country home outside of Florence. Evans is also responsible for the lighting, which is quietly effective. Michael Bevins has contributed attractive period costumes.

Machiavelli is by no means a saint in this production. He switches sides for political gain as much as personal safety, and he demonstrates a ruthlessness that seems appropriate for the author of The Prince. But the play shows us a more human aspect of the infamous author, in particular his status as a family man. Whether or not that's accurate is highly debatable; there is no mention here of Machiavelli's many mistresses, who are part of the historical record. Still, Vetere paints a compelling and entertaining portrait of a Machiavelli who might have been: a flawed man whose drive for political power is matched only by his depth of feeling for his family.