The pursuit of sex, and the humor in the pursuit of sex, seem never to go out of style. The scandalous pleasure that Niccolo Machiavelli’s most famous non-political play, The Mandrake , generated among Italian audiences back in 1518 (it is said even Pope Leo X was “intrigued”) can still be found in sections of this Pearl Theater Company production. The bawdiness of the play, translated here by Peter Constantine, operates as both a strength and a weakness in this particular version of the classical sex farce. At its best moments, the show is a well-directed ensemble comedy with brisk pacing and well-researched movement. But, at its worst, the (blue) humor seems stretched and thin, and the actors come off as infantile caricatures.
Machiavelli’s tribute to ancient Greek and Roman comedy, The Mandrake , tells of a young Florentine named Callimaco (Erik Steele) who will go to any means to justify his lusty ends, and to sleep with the beautiful and married Lucrezia. To do so, he hatches a devious plot with the help of an unemployed matchmaker, Ligurio(Bradford Cover), to convince Lucrezia's plodding husband (Dominic Cuskern) that in order for the couple to conceive a child, Lucrezia must drink a mandrake root potion and sleep with a total stranger (who will die shortly thereafter.)
Dominic Cuskern, who plays the soon-to-be cuckolded husband to the wily team of Callimaco & Ligurio (who do their best work off of each other), is the standout actor of the show. Both likeable and a complete comic putz as Messer Nicia, Cuskern's work is real and measured, never over the top, even in the most schticky scenes that have him feigning deafness while Ligurio bribes a money hungry Friar (TJ Edwards) to further persuade Lucrezia to surrender her virtue in accordance with the new plan.
Scenes involving multiple characters proved most funny and effective, as the actors' timing generally worked when in a group. And there was a welcome sense, from many of the actors (including Steele, Cover and TJ Edwards) that small pieces of stage business had been thoroughly explored for effect.
In period costumes by Barbara Bell, the actors made good use of Harry Feiner's set of the town of Florence. In particular, the long-anticipated evening of lovemaking between Lucrezia and Callimaco was inventively staged.
While not without flaws, this Renaissance comedy revived by The Pearl Theater Company merits a viewing for the timelessness of its humor, and some memorable moments created by its actors.