A man orchestrates an elaborate scheme with the help of a conspirator, the Church, and a servant to sleep with a wealthy man's wife in The Pearl Theatre Company's new foray into classical tales about sex and hijinks. Following last year's The Constant Couple, The PTC succeeds again with a hilarious production that entertains, delights and scarcely disappoints. And oh yeah, the script is by Niccolo Machiavelli. Yes, The Prince's Machiavelli.
Reviewed by Cindy Pierre
Rachel Botchan must be pretty darn confident in her charm. After having just polished off the role of Lady Lurewell, a woman with numerous (albeit some unwanted) suitors in last year's The Constant Couple, she returns to play the object of one man's undying obsession in Niccolo Machiavelli's 1518 political play, The Mandrake. The reduction in the number of wooers may seem like a discredit to her character Lucrezia's appeal: it's not. Callimaco's hard work and duplicity in getting Lucrezia into bed is more than enough for a roomful of admirers to handle. Yet, unlike in The Constant Couple, it is the journey to the acquisition as opposed to the acquisition of the woman herself that is the meat here. Luckily for us, the journey is sweet.
When Parisian Callimaco (Erik Steele, a newcomer to PTC) comes to Florence with his servant Siro (Edward Seaman) in pursuit of a renowned Italian beauty, he can't believe that she actually exists in Lucrezia, the unhappy wife of the older, wealthy Messer Nicia (Dominic Cuskern). Strumming his guitar, Callimaco connects with Lucrezia's siren-like vocals as well as her form. From there, he vows to have sex with her or die, but quickly realizes that he can't hatch a plan on his own. In comes Ligurio (Bradford Cover, representing Machiavelli's insertion of his own persona into the play), an advisor of sorts, with a master plan. Since Ligurio knows that Nicia is desperate to have the son and heir that Lucrezia has yet to provide, he suggests that Callimaco implant himself into the couple's lives as a doctor. Once there, Callimaco convinces Nicia that the mandrake (a poisonous plant with branched roots that resemble a human figure and believed to have magical powers), when ingested, will increase Lucrezia's fertility. But, beware. The first man that sleeps with Lucrezia after she consumes the mandrake will surely die (yet, the mandrake won't harm her....things that make you go hmmmm). So in order to enjoy the fruits and none of the spoils, they volunteer to find a sacrificial fool that lo and behold, will actually be Callimaco. Hence, the fun begins, and goes on and on until it rolls right over Friar Timoteo (TJ Edwards), and he gets caught in the web of lies for his own (or, ahem, the Church's) financial gain.
Less political and lighter than Machiavelli's The Prince (although dramatizing its principles), Peter Constantine's translation of the Italian script creates peace between Italy and France during the Renaissance in a roundabout, double-dealing way. It also illustrates Machiavelli's perception of the Renaissance as a time of satisfying desire by any means necessary. Steele's Callimaco is wrought with desire and deception, but he lends a softness to the role that makes us forgive his cutthroat behavior. His sculpted mannerisms and antics bounce wonderfully off of Cover's physical comedy that evokes John Ritter.
Under Jim Calder's greatly manicured direction, the ensemble performs well collectively, but it is the chemistry between Steele and Cover that is truly magical. The colorful, multi-tiered appearance of the set by Harry Feiner gets more functional and enjoyable as the play progresses, with body parts and faces appearing in windows unannounced. The set also looks popped up and collapsible, but charmingly so. It works because it lends testimony to the lies that can't stay in place forever. The only frown in this otherwise happy production is the inclusion of several monologues and commentaries by the characters. Not wholly intrusive but not contributory either, the show doesn't need to be narrated in any instance to entertain or propel the plot forward.
Check your skeptical mind at the door: you'll be in for a fun time at The Mandrake. The show is visually appealing, the material is rich, and the actors are at the top of their game. The play focuses on the poison of greed, corruption, lust and deceit, the production's antidote is laughter, excitement, and enjoyment. Not only won't this production kill you; it may make your faith in theater stronger.
Through February 10th. Tickets: $40.
The Pearl Theatre Company. 80 St. Mark's Place. New York, NY 10003.
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