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Unjustified Machiavelli

The Mandrake Opens at Cabot House

By Ross G. Forman

Once upon a time, in an Italian town, a young man fell in love with a married woman. After an intricate series of events involving potions, impotency and adultery, love conquered all.

Sound familiar? It could be the plot from any one of innumerable comedies written by innumerable authors on the Continent and in Britain from the time of the Renaissance to beyond the Restoration.

Unfortunately, it's also the story of The Mandrake, a play by Niccolo Machiavelli, best known for his political tract The Prince. It is a story that neither the author nor the director and cast of this Cabot House revival have managed to make more interesting than the many, forgotten plays of this ilk.

Like similiar works, the play revolves around an elaborate seduction of a Florentine woman, Lucrezia. Callimaco, the youth who falls in love with her, teams up with the low-life Ligurio to deceive Lucrezia's husband into inviting the young man into his wife's bed. With the help of a potion of mandrake root and some well-placed bribery, Callimaco and company carry out the affair.

Despite some efforts at original staging--including an opening in which the actors chant key lines from the play, a fight scene in slow motion and excellent use of lighting--director Leo Cabranes-Grant fails to breathe life into this obscure and unoriginal work.

Throughout much of the performance, the word comedy seems to be a misnomer, though the acting is sometimes laughable enough. The humor admittedly does pick up in the latter acts, but the cast relies more on slap-stick than witty delivery of their lines.

The Mandrake is not theater of the absurd. It is not even modern drama. It is a 15th-century Italian play. But at times the director and cast seem to forget this fact, using modern staging and language inappropriately. Often, the perfectly obvious bawdiness of many lines is unnecessarily exaggerated by lude gestures. Lines like, "I had to work off my butt to learn amo, amas, amat" have a disconcerting incongruity to them. And the costuming, an odd blend of blue jeans and Renaissance-like kitsch, is innovative without purpose.

While there is no reason that actors Brett Barbaro (who plays Callimaco) and Todd Portnoff (who plays Ligurio) shouldn't have long hair, they definitely should not spend so much of their time brushing it out of their eyes--a persistant and annoying mannerism that detracts from their characterization.

On the whole, the acting in The Mandrake is inexpert and inept. It is a high school production with pretensions. Cabranes-Grant has clearly given a lot of thought to the mannerisms and orations of his cast, but the actors ultimately prove incapable of lifting this direction out of the realm of the artificial.

In this revival, the bitterness and irony that should contribute to what little comedy has transcended the mist of the ages is lost in an atmosphere of comraderie. With cuckolding and a corrupt clergyman taken so casually by the performers, the plot of the play seems trivial.

Portnoff's portrayal of Ligurio in particular suffers from a lack of poison, and the result is a stultifyingly bland performance. His Ligurio is unduly stilted. Portnoff, along with another performer who speaks of "black-guards", mispronounces words and stumbles over his lines on more than a few occasions.

Brett Barbaro is all too innocent for Callimaco. His "golly-gee" performance jars with the masterful seduction in which he involves himself. Barbaro reaches his most immature moments when he adopts the persona of a doctor to further his advances (a plot twist reminiscent of Moliere). It simply is not believable. And James Baker's portrayal of the stupid and foolish husband whose wife is the object of this intrigue is wooden and uninteresting.

But the production does have a few polished performances. Susannah Frith as Lucrezia is convincingly distraught over the moral dilemma in which her husband places her. Her conversion after her seduction is believable, but not overdone. Todd Lochner, the crooked friar who joins in the play's dirty deeds, puts on a deliciously wicked grin as he consorts with Ligurio and Callimaco "in the name of God."

Lisa Corpus plays Siro, Callimaco's servant, with a strained but effective air of impertinence. And Barbara Biddle is adequate, if not inspirational, as Lucrezia's mother.

It seems doubtful that anyone would produce The Mandrake today if Machiavelli were not its author. This production shows why.

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