Better known for his political philosophy, Niccolo Machiavelli was also an accomplished playwright. His “The Mandrake,” is a delightfully satirical romp, cheerfully exposing the greed and lust under the polite surface of Florentine society.
Red Orchid has mounted a charming, modestly staged production (dir. Steve Scott) with an emphasis on the broadly comic dimensions of Machiavelli’s characters. The first act opens with a prologue in which the sardonic Ligurio (Lance Baker) introduces the plot and setting, Florence, represented by a sketchily painted street scene on a wall hanging. This monologue is the one false note in Baker’s otherwise slyly wonderful performance: he seems world-weary, even a little bored. Around him, the overwhelming visual effect is of somber grays and whites; the blue jeans worn by the deadpan servant Siro (Brian Kavanaugh) provide a welcome spot of color.
As the play progresses, things speed up, and they brighten up, too. Ligurio is something of a puppetmaster: a former matchmaker turned professional sponge, he sneakily helps everyone he knows to get either sex or money, in order to obtain those things for himself. Through him, we meet Callimaco (Steve Haggard) a young man desperately in love with the chaste, married Lucrezia (Cheyenne Pinson). Lucrezia’s foolish husband Nicia (Doug Vickers) wants a son and heir, but the couple can’t conceive. With a few silly disguises and a clever lie about the magical mandrake root, Ligurio and Callimaco convince Nicia to allow himself to be cuckolded.
Once the plot is in full swing, a series of well-executed short scenes stack up, escalating the laughter in the room from chuckles to hoots. The interactions between pompous, bumblingly lecherous Nicia and sensible, exasperated Siro are in particular exquisitely awkward. And Lucrezia’s transformation from ice queen to eager lover is executed with such exuberance we almost forget that it’s, well, wrong.