by Hugh Hunter
Five hundred years have not dulled the brilliance of “The Mandrake”, written by the redoubtable Niccolo Machiavelli. In the play now running at Quintessence, Director Alexander Burns uses the translation of Wallace Shawn to produce a comedy that has as strange and superb a “happy ending” as you will ever see.
It is a straightforward tale of lust and seduction. Alan Brincks is splendid in the role of Callimaco, a wandering student bursting with passion for the beautiful Lucrezia. But Callimaco has two problems. Lucrezia is already married to an old goat of a lawyer, Nicia (Gregory Isaac). And Lucrezia herself is a perfectly pious lady of great virtue.
So Callimaco brings a team of schemers to his side. He contracts the services of an outrageous social parasite, Ligurio, played by Josh Carpenter who comically crouches and slithers all over the stage like one of the weasels from “The Wind in the Willows.”
Joining Ligurio are Siro (Connor Hammond), Callimaco’s fawning servant, and Sostrata (E. Ashley Izard), Lucrezia’s amoral mother. But the key player in the conquest plan is Brother Timothy (Sean Close), who presents a hysterical mix of venality and Christian apologetics.
The actors are a joy to watch, but the production also has the characteristic “spectacle” elements of Quintessence shows. Costume design (Jane Casanave), choreography (Janet Pilla Marini) and lighting (David Sexton) underscore all the spirited acting. Chestnut Hill composer David Cope frames the play with a musical prologue for a shepherd (Jahzeer Terrell) and a nymph (Anita Holland) and composes two fine choral pieces for the entire ensemble that comment on the action like a Greek chorus.
The opening act is well over an hour. As the plan for the conquest of Lucrezia expands, the play creates a great sense of anticipation. Yet Act Two is quite brief, and in its rush from anticipation to climax the very structure of “The Mandrake” seems to embody ingeniously the sex act itself.
The vividly individual characters in this show go well beyond the stock figures you see in typical Commedia dell’arte. Machiavelli’s satirical jabs at doctors, lawyers and clergymen are so graceful you scarcely notice them, and in many ways Machiavelli paves the way for Moliere’s high comedy.
Perhaps the character who comes closest to reflecting his viewpoint is the lovely Lucrezia (Emiley Kiser), who can only endure her marriage to Nicia by collapsing into Christian piety. But when Brother Timothy takes away her crutch, she quickly “converts” to life-affirming joy.
Thinkers in the modern era have argued that what sometimes passes for virtue is more like closet nihilism. (Nietzsche leaps to mind.) What makes Machiavelli different is his utter lack of angst about the matter. He so sincerely believes honest animal joy trumps morality that modern “swinger” types seem like prudes by comparison.
Quintessence is located at 7137 Germantown Ave. “The Mandrake” will run in repertory with “Romeo and Juliet” through Nov 8. Reservations available at 215-987-4450.