Review: The Mandrake (A Red Orchid Theatre)


Tepid fun with fertility


Lucinda Johnston, Cheyenne Pinson, David Chrzanowski - The Mandrake

A Red Orchid Theatre presents
The Mandrake
Written by Niccolo Machiavelli
Translated by Peter Constantine
Directed by Steve Scott
at A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells (map)
through May 22  |  tickets: $25-$30  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Much in the spirit of Ben Jonson’s salacious Volpone, Boccaccio’s lascivious tales of irrepressible lust, or the author’s own political bombshell The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli’s only surviving farce is a devastating diatribe. Its almost too-easy target is the too-human hypocrisies that deny nature—of course, meaning sex—its due. A Red Orchid Theatre’s revival is up to the dirty doings of this sprightly satire, but it never quite achieves the liftoff that leads to serial laughs.

Lance Bake, Steve Haggard - A Red Orchid Theatre's 'The Mandrake'The plot, a series of successful deceptions, is as straightforward as the genre gets. Unlike later commedia. like “A Comedy of Errors” or “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” there are no twists along its turns. Intrigue triumphs too easily against fear and folly.

With a cunning deadpan , sardonic slyness, but too little pleasure in his manipulations, Lance Baker plays the rouge Ligurio, a trickster who’s hired by the doting young lover Callimacho (Steve Haggard, mugging up a storm). This amoral young cock wants to bed the beautiful but much repressed Lucretia (lovely and shy Cheyenne Pinson). Unfortunately, she is barrenly married to the fatuous Messer Nicia (a rubber-faced Doug Vickers), a born gull who desperately wants a child from his too-chaste Lucrezia.

Ligurio enlists Lucrezia’s venal mother Sostrata (Lucinda Johnston) and an easily bribed and elaborately corrupt friar (David Chrzanowski) to set Lucrezia up for sex with a sweet stranger. Callimacho convinces the easily beguiled Messer Nicia that he’s a doctor who can make Lucrezia fertile with a special potion made from the lust-stirring mandrake root. But such are its properties that the first person who sleeps with her after this treatment will die. Of course, Callimacho will make sure that he’s the supposed sacrifice. Here everyone gets their way, even if it’s at the cost of Messer Nicia assiduously engineering his own cuckolding.

It’s a strange staging to start with: Though set designer Grant Sabin frames the comedy with a Renaissance proscenium that reveals a panoramic backdrop of an early 16th century Florentine piazza, Jeremy W. Floyd’s costumes are modern dress. The jarring contrast creates a stylistic tension, with the prosaic garb (except for Messer Nicia’s clownish garb) flattening the action with too much familiarity.

Rich in psychological pungency, Machiavelli’s cynbical quips about human nature give the predictable plot some philosophical heft. But the staging itself seems too grounded in everyday absurdities, the timing a tad too careful, to achieve the escape velocity of self-propelled, raucously urgent screwball burlesque. When the funniest laugh comes from a lighting cue (“The sun is up!”), something bland happened to the script.

Rating: ★★

Lance Baker, Steve Haggard, Doug Vickers - Mandrake

Steve Haggard, Lance Baker - The Mandrake Doug Vickers, Brian Kavanaugh - The Mandrake



Featuring A Red Orchid Ensemble Members Lance Baker (Ligurgio), Steve Haggard (Callimaco) and Doug Vickers (Messer Nichia), with David Chrzanowski (Friar Timoteo), Brian Kavanaugh (Siro), Cheyenne Pinson (Lucrezia) and Lucinda Johnston (Sostrata).

Production and Creative Team

The creative team includes Steve Scott (Director)  Grant Sabin (Set Designer), Jeremy W. Floyd (Costume Designer), Michael Stanfill (Lighting Designer), Joseph Fosco (Sound Designer), Douglas Kupferman (Properties Designer). The Stage Manager is Stephanie Heller. Kelli Marino is Dramaturg, and Machiavelli and Political Theory Consultant is Cristophre Kayser.


Lance Bake and Steve Haggard - A Red Orchid Theatre


4 Responses

  1. All due respect, I think you’re wrong, Larry, to fault the “tension” in the “old Florence”/modern dress (which one critic perceptively noted was invoked Wall Street.
    And, as a longstanding admirer of A Red Orchid’s work, it occurs to to me that director Steve Scott’s take on The Mandrake fits right in with the “dangerously funny” aesthetic of the theatre. And, thus, the “nervous” laughter (esp. as audience members are picked out and skewered by Machiavelli’s still trenchant text), as we simultaneously experience and reflect upon (Brecht’s Verfremdungseffeckt) self/others and the venal, sad, silly, sanctimonious time and place in which we live. Don’t think that Scott and his delicious actors/designers wanted us to ‘forget’
    how litle our culture has really evolved in ‘mere”
    enjoyment of “scewball burlesque.”

  2. I’m not going to argue with–because I don’t pretend to understand–your grandiloquent theorizing about Machiavelli’s modernity. The proof, in any case, is in the paella. Laughter is what makes it relevant, not because the times are hypocritical but because humans are. This staging was more forced than funny, except for the wonderfully game Doug Vickers.

  3. I also will not pretend to understand Carlton’s point, but I will say this, as I wrote it the program notes: What makes La Mandragola relevent today is not the hilarity (or non-hilarity if you think that), but the fact that in Mandragola, as in his overtly political works, you are faced with a moral choice. Why should we care about this author who wrote 500 years ago? If it is because he called for bad behavior in politics, he just simply wouldn’t be read. The means/end argument has been around at least since Plato and there’s no reason to read or see Machiavelli if it is simply a question of bad acts producing good ends.

    Machiavelli is more complicated than that and that is the reason why we still read, discuss, and debate him after 5 centuries. What happens in the Mandrake? All the characters act deviously, selfishly, dishonestly and…everybody in the end is happy. This is a moral point of view that makes us uncomfortable, because it is at odds with the prevailing moral view, one based on Christian-Judeo values. The two moral world views are simply incompatible. And Machiavelli thinks that to have a strong, virtuous state that benefits the majority of its citizens you have to chose the moral world view that is not Christian, but, let’s call it pagan. He looks to the Roman Republic for how one should act (and it should be obvious that his book on Livy’s History of Rome shows that cetera paribus he prefers a Republic to a Principality); he looks to the Greece of Pericles and Thucydides and the action taken against the Melians.

    If Ligurio et al. do things and behave in a way that we find offensive, or simply wrong, it is because we are viewing their actions in terms of the virtues of Christian morality. Machiavelli doesn’t even consider for a moment that this kind of morality could produce a healthy or robust citizen or principality.

    This is a brilliant play because Machiavelli makes his point in a comedy, or in comedic situations. One can view this cunning comedic spectacle on its own terms. But appreciation of the element of greatness in the play requires that a picture of the tragic world of The Prince be kept at least faintly in mind. After the laughter, if you think about what the characters have done, you are left with the uneasy choice. Did the characters act correctly? From Machiavelli’s point of view, of course they did. No one was overtly or lastingly injured and everybody had their desires fulfilled. Why is it wrong that all should be happy?

    In the end, will you accept the judgment of Macaulay that Mandragola “is inferior only to the best of Moliere”? Will you accept Voltaire’s judgment that “Mandragola is worth more than all of the comedies of Aristophanes”?

    • Well-argued! Cris! My major point –since no one seems to have followed it– had to do w/ Steve Scott’s ‘post-modernist’ interpretation. Though I have many questions and differences of viewpoint with Scott, his and AROT’s presentation of the Mandrake represent, I believe, a radical revisiting of themes which have a long and storied place and influence (cp. CK’s Voltaire quote) in the intellectual history and canon of modern drama. It follows and departs radically from Augusto Boal’s 1970’s Teatro de San Paolo’s modernist (and decidedly Marxist-Brechtian) interpretation –see the chapter on Machiavelli in his Theater of the Oppressed to get a sense of same. What, then, describes a ‘post- modernist’ aesthetic, and how is AROT’s The Mandrake post-modernist. If, following Nietzsche and his heirs: “truth is the variety of perspectives”, the creative enterprise a “transvaluation of all values,” then any such objective expression (Hegel’s “Entausserung”) is also an “Alienation” (Hegel’s “Entfremdung”) from the self. In post-modernism, the Self / its expressions is itself a ‘convenient fiction’ (see Nietzsche’s The Will to Power), and is indeed known to itself as such (thus, the highly ironic nature of its reworkings of a historical text… in the service of the present, self-forming/self-formative (fluid/fractured self, world and other) “Self” (as healthy “fiction”). That does not mean that any interpretation is worthy, however…to be so, it must be an embodiment of the present which resonates and ‘moves’ at all levels: intellectual, emotional, viseral, and social…far from being merely entertaining, a powerful interpretation ‘changes’ our perspective radically. AROT’s The Mandrake does so, I believe, at several levels: 1) as a reflection on today’s mores and behavior in the context of ‘human nature’ (thus the creative “tension” between “Machiavelli’s Florence” and the modern dress of its characters), and 2) in the particular disjunction/split (“Spaltung”) not only between what we say and what we do (CK expresses this beautifully), but in our ‘divided selves.’ This is seen particularly in the upending of the gender roles and stereotypes in AROT’s The Mandrake. Callimaco, rather than being hyper-masculine/the prototype for Don Juan (albeit a Don Juan finally ‘smitten’ and ‘tempered’ by love, is played as a rather fay, at best metrosexual, fool. Highlighting the homoerotic jousting between and among all its male cast, all under the guise of the common wish to ‘plant a seed’ and either to carry on the status quo ante (Messer Nicia) or ‘regenerate’ the breed (Callimaco), –see the dramaturgical notes in the playbill– underscores the notion that, even with a ‘new generation’ and no matter who the father, this is a ship of self-deluded fools, foppish and decadent to its core, and doomed to Dodo-like existence and extinction. Sad to say, I think that Steve Scott and AROT may be on to something.

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