For most people today, the name Niccolò Machiavelli is synonymous with really just one thing: kill-or-be-killed political practices. We refer to this or that public leader or corporate executive as being Machiavellian, and rarely think about this Renaissance writer’s other works. Few, for instance, would think that the man who wrote the political treatise The Prince was responsible for one of the most popular comedies in Italy in the first decades of the 16th century, but indeed, Machiavelli’s comedy, The Mandrake Root, held such sway over audiences that there are reports that it bested Plautus’s Menaechmi in a dramatic competition in Venice during the writer’s lifetime.
However, audiences taking in the new production of Machiavelli’s comedy, which is being produced as merely The Mandrake at the Pearl Theatre right now, might find such acclaim from the period to be simply quaint hyperbole of the moment, for in director Jim Calder’s overly broad and forced production, the play feels like a buffoonish children’s cartoon.
Machiavelli’s plot certainly should supply hearty laughs. It centers on Callimaco (Erik Steele), an Italian gentleman raised in France, who’s returned to his homeland to see if the reports of beauty that he’s heard about a noble Florentine woman, Lucrezia (Rachel Botchan), are true. Indeed they are, and he’s desperate to woo her and bed her, in spite of the fact she’s married.
Lucrezia’s husband, Messer Nicia (Dominic Cuskern), an older, dimwitted lawyer, proves to be Callimaco’s greatest ally in his romantic and sexual pursuits.
Not that he doesn’t have other help. With the guidance and assistance of the roguish Ligurio (Bradford Cover), and to a lesser extent Sostrata (Carol Schultz), Lucrezia’s mother, Callimaco uses Nicia’s fixation on begetting an heir to work his way into the woman’s bedroom. Callimaco disguises himself as a doctor who prescribes a potion that uses the mandrake root. He tells the old man that this draught will ensure that she conceive, and to make sure Nicia steps aside after Lucrezia’s ingested the potion, Callimaco gives the draught a downside: the first person who sleeps with the woman will die. Ligurio convinces a not-so-saintly friar (TJ Edwards) to assist in quieting any objections that Lucrezia might have, and after some doubts, Messer Nicia is willingly agreeing to be cuckolded.
Calder’s production of this licentious comedy, laced with some terrific period satire, stumbles from the outset when the company appears intoning a bizarre combination of animal noises, individual musical notes, and melodies that all ultimately converge into a single song. In spite of Barbara A. Bell’s handsome Renaissance costumes and scenic designer Harry Feiner’s beautifully conceived Italianate facades that indicate the various homes of the characters and the local church, it’s difficult to understand where the play might be heading.
After this, curious choices by certain actors only further confound. Steele plays the romantic lead as a whiny, somewhat nerdy boy while Cover delivers an antic performance as Ligurio. Both seem to have taken their cue from Peter Constantine’s uneven translation, which alternates between elegance and crassness. More successful are Cuskern (who is saddled with one particularly unpleasant catchphrase by Constantine) and Edwards. Both actors are deft in their handling of monologues filled with some of Machiavelli’s most cutting rhetoric about life in Florence and church-sanctioned duplicity with aplomb. Botchan and Schultz, relegated to roles that are almost non-existent in this testosterone-fueled play, also deliver solid work.
While the piece delivers a happy (albeit dark) ending, there seems to be some sort of Machiavellian plot afoot to undermine the author’s reputation through this production.