nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 20, 2008
Mandrake is a plant that some cultures believed could ensure conception. Niccolo Machiavelli's play The Mandrake turns on a complicated and elaborate plot to achieve the same result—Messer Nicia, a rich middle-aged fool, desperately wants his beautiful young wife Lucrezia to bear him a son, but so far no children have been forthcoming. So he consults with Ligurio, whom he does not realize is essentially a con man, to find a cure for his problem; Ligurio, in league with Callimaco, who is in love with Lucrezia, devises a plan whereby Callimaco must have sex with Lucrezia in order to guarantee that she will at last be fertile. Nicia, like all rich middle-aged fools in plays like this, agrees to play cuckold for the sake of a supposedly guaranteed child. (But I will leave the rest of the story's devious doings and details for you to discover and enjoy on your own.)
You will note, undoubtedly, that notwithstanding the play's title, it is the name of the play's author that most neatly describes what its themes are, or rather a variant of his name: Machiavellian. The playwright's reputation rests not on a play but on his much earlier work The Prince, in which he asserted among other principles that the ends always justify the means in the realms of the pragmatic and the political. Callimaco and particularly Ligurio are as pragmatic as they come, and they bear out the famous dictum in this admittedly farcical setting: from where they stand, it's perfectly fine to manipulate and betray the dull old man in order for Callimaco to get the woman he wants (and for Ligurio to get the pay he will surely receive from Callimaco for making it happen).
Nasty business, this, which is why Machiavelli then and the folks at the Pearl now do well to disguise it as much as possible with humor of every stripe. The text never stops making fun of the corruptibility of humankind; in addition to the aforementioned, the cast of characters includes Lucrezia's good time-girl of a mother, a pair of servants (man and woman, each assigned to one of the central lovers) who don't analyze the morality of a request so long as it comes from the person paying the salary, and most deliciously a friar who understands that the Church is more a business than a spiritual sanctuary.
Director Jim Calder, for his part, keeps the laughs coming, and his cast—most of them skillful veterans of stage comedy, at the Pearl and elsewhere—deliver them. Bradford Cover (Ligurio), Rachel Botchan (Lucrezia), Carol Schultz (Sostrata, Lucrezia's mother), Edward Seamon (Siro, Callimaco's servant), Rocelyn Halili (Lucrezia's servant), and newcomer Erik Steele (Callimaco) all do fine work here, and Dominic Cuskern (Nicia) and T.J. Edwards (Friar Timoteo) are absolutely at their best. Harry Feiner has provided a simple and very serviceable unit set on which the entire story unfolds economically, while Barbara A. Bell's costumes are effective in defining who's who.
What struck me most about The Mandrake, which is performed here in a world premiere translation by Peter Constantine that the Pearl's press materials tell us is faithful to the original Italian text, is how rowdy, vulgar, even coarse it turns out to be. Now I am stuck (no matter how hard I try to shake it off) as a product of the entrenched Puritan/Victorian tradition that underlies so much of America's social fabric, even in 2008; maybe I shouldn't be surprised that an Italian play from the early 16th century trades almost exclusively in bawdy jokes about body fluids (the big gag in the first half of the play concerns the contents of the lady's chamber pot), but I was. That's why seeing a piece like this production of The Mandrake is so instructive—it helps us tear through assumptions and see a theatrical landmark as freshly and clearly as it's possible to do 500 years after it was written.
Of course, the main reason audiences will likely see The Mandrake is to test what they think they understand about Machiavelli's philosophy against what he put up on the stage. There's plenty of food for thought provided along those lines here as well.