The Mandrake–a Renaissance Musical

Greasy Joan & Company

at the Chopin Theatre

By Jack Helbig

Niccolo Machiavelli would seem an unlikely source for a witty, good-hearted comedy–much less one enlivened every ten minutes or so by a showstopping musical number. But here it is, a rollicking comedy by Machiavelli, translated by Christopher Tiffany, with music by Andrew Hansen and a cast of adept comic actors wringing every laugh they can out of the material.

Over the years dictators and autocrats have taken comfort from Machiavelli, infamous since the Renaissance for his amoral, frankly manipulative advice in The Prince and the Discourses, written for political leaders and those who would like to usurp them. (Sample line from The Prince, intended to aid would-be assassins: “If you would strike a king, you must kill him.”) Slobodan Milosevic would approve of Machiavelli’s observation in The Prince that at times it’s best for a ruler hoping to expand his dominion to lay waste to the country and put the inhabitants to the sword.

But much of the vilification of Machiavelli may simply be a case of killing the messenger in the hope of killing the message. He was, of course, much more complex than his enemies made him out to be. And not all of his devotees have been monsters. Frederick the Great–a well-known protector of free speech–was a big admirer, though he hid his admiration by attacking Machiavelli in print. The Prussian ruler made sure only his policies were Machiavellian–a move Machiavelli would have approved, as Voltaire wryly noted in his memoirs. And Machiavelli never advised his readers to be unstintingly cruel, mean-spirited monsters. He asked them to be realistic.

Machiavelli was also a man of letters who wrote poetry and plays as easily as polemics. Part of this was just the way professionals showed their prowess in Renaissance Italy: instead of conquering the StairMaster, Florentine men wrote sonnets. And Machiavelli had a flair for comedy, which he revealed in a number of plays, some translations of Roman comedies, some adaptations. They are all but forgotten, however–even the play everyone agrees was his best, La mandragola, sometimes translated as “The Mandrake,” a traditional sex farce. Like Chaucer’s “The Miller’s Tale,” the story concerns a comely young wife married to a dried-up, very unpleasant old man. When a younger, more attractive suitor comes along, the play revolves around uniting the two young things and humiliating the old fart.

In Machiavelli’s hands, The Mandrake–written about the same time as The Prince and the Discourses–becomes a case study in Machiavellian behavior. Instead of the two lovers simply conspiring against the husband, the youthful, smitten protagonist concocts a complicated plot whereby he’s virtually forced, apparently against his will, to sleep with the withered old man’s beautiful wife. The tale might be read as an allegory for conquering a territory without riling the current inhabitants. Or as a romp. The beauty of this Greasy Joan & Company production is that the play can be read either way and remain sweet.

Director Kevin Theis sidesteps all the traps that usually ensnare people producing pre-Shakespeare comedies. The play is filled with long speeches, for example, many of which are wittier on the page than they are on the stage. But every time Machiavelli indulges his now unfashionable love of speechifying, Theis finds some appropriate stage business–enacting the story one character is telling another, finding a handful of nicely executed visual gags–to spice up the show.

Yet Theis clearly respects the play; none of the commedialike shtick detracts from the text. Mark Richard (seasoned by his years playing Bertie Wooster with City Lit) proves especially adept at physical comedy as the crotchety old man. Likewise the rubber-faced Joseph M. Wycoff as the protagonist wins the audience over from his first entrance and proves himself again and again a master of the comic arts, both verbal and physical.

Tiffany’s translation deserves much of the credit for this production’s humor. His version is more faithful to Machiavelli’s earthy prose, a friend tells me, than the more academic, dignified texts offered in Western Civ. A line in an edition I have left over from college, for example, is translated as “Barf!” whereas Tiffany chooses the more correct, and funnier, “Bullshit!” In addition, Tiffany’s translation–and Theis’s production–makes it very clear that our hero is motivated by pure lust. And that his sexual prowess wins his gentle lady’s love. (Machiavelli was as clear-eyed about love as he was about politics.) Melanie Dix’s transformation from frustrated wife to sexually fulfilled adulteress here is especially hilarious.

Hansen’s music adds another dimension to the show, providing diverting song breaks–with lyrics by Machiavelli–between the play’s five short acts. Unfortunately the lyrics have not been translated–and like the songs Brecht inserted before each scene in Galileo, they’re clearly meant to comment on the preceding events. Still, Theis’s staging of the musical numbers is a nice substitute, wittily illustrating Machiavelli’s themes. And it hardly seems fair to quibble with a production that has changed forever my idea of what it means to be Machiavellian.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): theater still by John Flak.