Review: Scheib's 'Lorenzaccio' Scores

Visiting director oversees the best Mainstage show in years

Lorenzaccio

Loeb Mainstage, November 14-22

Directed by Jay Scheib

Executive produced by Jeremy W. Blocker ’04

Produced by Jess M. Matthews ’04 and Anne E. Patrone ’04

Thus far, the semester has been a prodigiously productive one for Harvard theater. However, the Harvard Radcliffe Dramatic Club’s incredible production of Alfred de Musset’s Lorenzaccio, which went up this weekend on the Loeb Mainstage, is far more than simply this season’s showcase piece: kinetic, elegant and held together by visiting director Jay Scheib’s tremendous sense of style, Lorenzaccio is easily the best piece of theater that the Mainstage has seen in years.

The principal kudos are due to the accomplished Scheib, whose ability to orchestrate multiple points of action and complicated shifts in blocking is well-nigh incredible. The play’s lengthy first scene, in which the duke and his comrades carouse and otherwise raise drunken hell, is absolutely enthralling, and Scheib’s consistent ability to maintain plenty of plausible onstage activity never flags. Not surprisingly, the play’s simplest scene—a dialogue which two characters conduct entirely on their knees on an otherwise empty stage—is the play’s weakest point.

Reviewing Lorenzaccio’s acting is difficult, because Musset’s characters have been elided into each other in the script’s adaptation by Paul Schmidt (who also pulled translation duties). In other words, the show is deliberately (and rightly, from a thematic point of view) presented with a staging that blurs the lines spoken by the show’s large cast.

Nonetheless, certain members of the generally excellent cast stand out. Kate H. Walker ’06, as Lorenzaccio, is a trifle too slight at times, but in general she’s suitably complex and keeps her motivations obscure; she’s at her best when her character is at her most dissolute, and in a frenzied monologue as she prepares to assassinate her cousin, the duke. Adam G. Zalisk ’07, as Duke Alessandro himself, is dynamically sleazy, capricious and otherwise tyrannical. Ben D. Margo ’04 is extremely funny as the scheming Cardinal Salviati Cibo; his interactions with the Marchessa Ruccellai Cibo (Olga V. Fedorishcheva ’03) are a real highlight. Emily V.W. Galvin ’04, as the aging patriot Filippa Strozzi, projects a stoic grandeur even in her moments of most intense suffering, while her rather misguided son Piero (Nick J. O’Donovan) seethes and rages with persuasive intensity. Strozzi’s two daughters, Luisa (Alexa L.M. von Tobel ’06) and Prior Tomassa (Erica R. Lipez ’05) both act well; von Tobel, acrobatic and emotively melodramatic, is uniquely hilarious. Dan Wilner, as the rather quiet Cardinal Valori, also turns in a solid performance.

Lorenzaccio’s expansive set design, courtesy of Andrew D. Boch ’03, is fantastic. His set is concretely evocative of real-world urban decay (the party cups littering the chunks of prefab house that dominate the stage give the setting a sort of frat-house feel) and yet still very surreal; the building crew have put considerable effort into this set, and it shows. It also combines with high-end costuming by Gisli Palsson ’04 to create an ambience that is all the more plausible for its anachronism.

The ART’s massive video screen, which is being increasingly integrated into Repertory productions, is put to fabulous use by Leah Gelpe, Scheib’s collaborator and Lorenzaccio’s Sound and Video Designer. In a perfect solution to the problem of the set’s complicated division of interior and exterior spaces, a pair of on-stage camerapersons send live footage of various scenes directly to the screen. Issues of form aside, this makes for moments of tremendous dramatic power—intense moments of dialogue and close-ups on actor’s faces are quite gripping—and images of considerable beauty (such as a lengthy shot of the dead Strozzi daughter’s hand).

Granted, Lorenzaccio isn’t perfect. It features perhaps too much running around for no apparent reason, and its random, excessive bits of physicality (I don’t think there’s any character in the play who doesn’t push all of the others at some point) can occasionally seem poorly executed. Readings of the play looking for a rigid message or in-depth treatment of themes on a level beyond the atmospheric might have further qualms. Indeed, Scott R. Wilson ’04, Lorenzaccio’s dramaturge, should never, ever be allowed to write a playbill’s notes again: his program assertion that directorial decisions to ‘collide’ characters reveals “a careful (Foucauldian) attention to the fluidity of conceptions of gender and sexuality in the Renaissance and their relevance for today” is just silly—if such mindless pseudo-academic regurgitation is really what’s behind some of this play’s more attractively ambiguous bits, then it’s best to keep quiet about it.

Taken overall, however, Lorenzaccio is subtle even in its moments of seeming heavy-handedness—or, rather, it’s heavy-handed in a professional, evocative and functionally dramatic way. Animated by Scheib’s supreme sense of action, Lorenzaccio is a persuasive winner, an earnest effort at presenting its audience with complicated, challenging theater.

—Crimson Arts Critic Patrick D. Blanchfield can be reached at blanchf@fas.harvard.edu.