“The ends justify the means”. Villainous ladder-climbers spout it in corporate dramas, and history teachers write it across blackboards (at least mine did). Most of us know Machiavelli from these words, and the work from which it came, The Prince. Most of us don’t know, however, that the scathing writer also penned a play. Faction of Fools Theatre Company has brought The Mandrake to life, showing us that while the author may have changed mediums, his worldview remained brutally unaltered.
The Mandrake tells the comedic and satirical tale of Callimaco (Tyler Herman), a young man of the upper class helplessly infatuated with Lucrezia (Allison S. Galen), who is inconveniently married to Nicia, an elderly -and gullible – aristocratic judge (Jesse Terrill, who also writes original music for the piece). With the help of the cunning Ligurio, (Director Matthew R. Wilson), Callimaco devises a plan to win the lady for himself. Well, steal the lady. For Renaissance-era Italy, theft is the new black.
Machiavelli’s cynical musings on politics, influence, and religion cut as much to the bone now as they did five hundred years ago. To the Friar (Daniel Flint) who joins in on the conspiracy in return for a sizeable endowment, piety is a product. To the Judge, a wife is a possession. Ligurio speaks in ruling class tongue and the servants are given, literally, no voice. (Some of the most compelling interactions, however, take place between Gallaudet University students Charlie Ainsworth as servant Siro and Miranda Medungo as servant Fiorina. Their silent courtship dance at times steals the show.) Wilson spearheads the production as Ligurio, the sleazy marriage broker. He commands the stage, and is a pleasure to watch.
Flint, who doubles as the set designer, creates an impressive urban piazza set which transforms as the piece rolls forward. A.J. Guban’s lighting makes the space is exceedingly lively, with a pulse of its own.
The real strength of the production is the physical comedy. Wordless exposition, energetic, engaging, and set to Terrill’s lively compositions, beautifully prefaces the acts. The company highlights its physical skill set by masking more than half of the actors in Aaron Cromie’s intricate creations. Acting behind the confines of a mask is a difficult task, but the company pulls it off gracefully.
This physical comedy gusto, however, at times overpowers the narrative. The company is full of confidence and strength amidst the high jinks which occasionally diminish in the verbal elements of the show. The rhythm of the piece falters as the action slows, but finds its footing when chaos returns. There is much chaos. Those crazy Italians.
Though many of the piece’s themes have held up over time, others scratch a nerve. Machiavelli’s frequent jabs at women offer little contemporary comedic value (even with a wink and a nod from the company). With time period and context in mind, some zingers are still difficult to swallow.
Hundreds of years later, the words of Machiavelli still sting. “I have been deceived,” remarks the Friar after a shady business transaction. “But this deception is to my advantage.” The comedy is filled with such prickly, pithy lines that could make the blood turn cold to think how little has changed. Few characters are particularly likeable, but all get what they desire.
Everyone smiles and the audience goes home. If only our country’s current predicaments could be told through the lens of the Faction of Fools.
The Mandrake runs thru Oct 8, 2011 at Eastman Studio Theatre – Gallaudet University,
800 Florida Ave NE Washington, DC
By Niccolo Machiavelli
Directed by Matthew R. Wilson
Produced by Faction of Fools Theatre Company
Reviewed by Sarah Ameigh
Running Time: Two hours including one fifteen minute intermission