LA MANDRAGOLA: MACHIAVELLIAN MELODRAMA IS A HISTORICAL CURIOBy Greggory Moore
”Please prepare to be shocked, or at least surprised, by what you see and hear in this play,” writes Helen Borgers in the Director’s Notes in the program for La Mandragola (“The Mandrake Root”). “Its attitude about women is bound to upset any serious modern humanist.”
After seeing the play, I can’t help wondering if there’s a bit of a philosophical disconnect between Borgers and the work, and if that might be part of the reason LB Shakespeare’s production of this little-known play by Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli, author of The Prince and namesake of ‘Machiavellianism’ (the philosophy that the ends justify the means), seems so straitened.
Setting aside the fact that the play regards its male characters as every bit as lowly as its female ones, it’s entirely unclear to me how any serious modern humanist could take Mandragola seriously. Whatever else it may be, Mandragola is populated by ludicrous action, low comedy, and characters that Machiavelli doesn’t come anywhere near attempting to flesh out.
Moreover, while the play does apply its author’s signature philosophy, by all appearances Machiavelli’s examination of such is far more satirical than promotional. Check it out:
Callimacho (Alex Des Combes) a Florentine who decamped to Paris to avoid political upheavals at home, has returned after a decade solely because while in Paris some bloke told him that a woman in Florence named Lucrezia (Nasi Nassiri) is the most beautiful in the world. Unfortunately, Callimacho tells us, she is married and virtuous; fortunately, she has a very stupid husband (Mike Austin). So Callimacho enlists the help of his parasitic friend Ligurio (Matthew Dougherty) and faithful manservant (Sheri Scialla), an unethical friar (Carl Wawrina), and Lucrezia’s dissolute mother (Deborah Cartwright) to interpolate himself into Lucrezia’s marriage. His big plan? Convince the heir-desiring husband that he is a doctor with a surefire prescription for pregnancy—namely, having the woman ingest a potion made from mandrake root—whose only downside is that the first fellow to enjoy coitus with her afterwards will die within a week.
The solution? Abduct some scamp from off the street—which will be Callimacho disguising himself by wearing a big nose and making a funny face—toss him into Lucrezia’s room, and let him have at it. (It’s not rape, because her mother and friar have talked her into it.)
Anything shocking or surprising there? Well, maybe its dumbness. Certainly there’s not much to take seriously. Not that LB Shakespeare plays it otherwise. This is a farce-cum-madrigal comedy (at least as conceived by Borgers. Since I’ve not seen the script, and since Mandragola predates the madrigal comedy by a good half-century, I don’t know whether the singing stuff is auctorial or directorial vision), and it’s given proper treatment as such.
If you’ve seen a traditional melodrama, you have some idea of the range that the cast of Mandragola gets to display. These are not meaty characters, and they do not develop in any meaningful way.
In terms of production values, the set is limited but serviceable, and there are a couple of amusing lighting cues. But the standout element is Barbara Josefsberg’s costuming, which is awfully lush for such a silly little show.
All in all, LB Shake’s La Mandragola feels like little more than a historical curio. As such, the more we get the impression that we are seeing the same thing audiences saw in the 16th century, the more bang we get from our buck. Borgers and company give us something here, and this is the main reason to go.
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