Flower of Comedy, Root of Evil

When one hears of Machiavelli, the usual image that's conjured is the narrow-eyed portrait of the backroom backstabber, the Renaissance's harbinger of 20th-century spin-doctoring and realpolitik. A cold, clever, nasty genius akin to, say, Henry Kissinger or Karl Rove. What many people don't realize, however, is that during Niccolò Machiavelli's own lifetime he was most renowned for his farcical comedic touch in screwball sex romps like The Mandrake, now revived in a titillating new production at the Manhattan Theater Source. A senile, grumbling old lawyer, Nicia, keeps a beautiful wife, Lucrezia. His one desire is to have a son, but he just isn't up to the job. Callimaco, a gallivanting ne'er-do-well, has eyes for Lucrezia, but she is impossibly virtuous. So he enlists the help of Nicia's henpecking mother-in-law, an avaricious friar, his faithful, sloe-eyed servant, and a faithless fellow traveler who helps him concoct a scheme, which is this: Pretending to be a doctor, he convinces Nicia the only way to solve his problem is to get Lucrezia to eat a mandrake root.

However, there's a caveat, the first person to sleep with Lucrezia will die (a point-blank metaphor of the Renaissance superstition that the sin of adultery leads directly to murder). Delighted, Nicia agrees to capture a passer-by,Callimaco in disguise, of course,with the gang of co-conspirators and willingly arranges his own cuckoldry.

While the characters are the stock figures of commedia dell'arte, they are realized with such panache and precision as to render them into human cartoons. Like good cartoons, they display an exaggerated animation that real people too often lack. Michael Shattner as the dimwitted Nicia is especially hilarious, shouting expletives and shuffling around bent-backed as the play's impotent, crotchety laughingstock.

The production is chock-full of sight gags, little gestural asides, and even physical interactions with the audience, thanks to director Daryl Boling's well-timed blocking and marvelous use of a narrow, unadorned stage. The stage's layout resembles a high school football stadium in miniature, with small rows of bleachers flanking either side so that we watch not only the play itself but a mirroring audience as well. And, judging from the audience members' reactions, the buffoons and rapscallions plodding and plotting before them are recognizable character types we still have with us today.

Vinnie Marano's punchy new translation is completely contemporary and colloquial, with pun-a-minute double entendres, while Ollie Rasini's serviceable folk songs strummed by a troubadour break up the fast-paced scenes of this antic sex farce. One memorable scene has Callimaco (Jeffrey Plunkett), in the guise of the doctor, spouting possible causes of Nicia's erectile dysfunction, first in the Latin of the Vulgate, then in a transparently vulgar Latin, slipping into pig Latin, and then descending into complete nonsense. Meanwhile, Nicia absentmindedly splashes the bottle of urine that the doctor asked to examine, from which Siro, the bumbling servant (Ridley Parson), nearly takes a swig by accident.

Oddly, Machiavelli's send-up of all-consuming cynicism results in a genial outcome for everyone involved: the friar gets paid off, Nicia has a son, Lucrezia realizes her sexual coming of age, Callimaco pulls off the bed trick, and the others get to be in on a good practical joke. In some ways, Machiavelli's vision is like a comedic perversion of Adam Smith's providential "invisible hand" of free-market capitalism, which makes all turn out for the best in a world of cutthroat bankers and butchers bloodymindedly pursuing their own self-interests.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in fact, thought that Machiavelli's famous treatise on the ruthless machinations of statecraft, The Prince, was a satire. But, regardless of whether Machiavelli intended his works to endorse, exploit, or examine the godless pragmatism he witnessed surrounding him, it is clear that this delightfully lighthearted production of The Mandrake aims to gently mock the pretensions and follies of the eternal human comedy.

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