All Things Entertaining and Cultural

The Mandrake — Quintessence Theatre Group at Sedgwick Theatre

mandrake -- interiorNiccolo Machiavelli goes way past the already questionable conundrum about ends justifying means.

In the Machiavellian universe, ends are everything. The means don’t have to be justified. They only have to procure for person the object, earned or not, right or wrong, of his or her desire. Medieval Florence must have been a hoot and a half with Mach, Savonarola, and all of those Medicis bopping around mangling various scruples.

A hoot is what Quintessence Theatre Group artistic director Alexander Burns makes of Wallace Shawn’s translation of Machiavelli’s play “The Mandrake.” Burns is almost cartoonish in his approach. Machiavelli’s characters are deliciously devious and unapologetically evil. The wring their hands in eager anticipation as they plot. The smile broadly at each new nefarious stratagem they devise. They relish their successes whether they are measured in sexual opportunity or ducats. They take pleasure in fooling others, They have the morals of predators, the appetites of creatures that consume ten times their weight, and the exhilaration of the lusty conqueror. Remorse, regret, pity are other such sentiments is mere pablum for the toothless. In Machiavelli’s, you plot with glee, act with guile, grasp with enthusiasm, and prevail with glorious satisfaction.

Are these not the perfect ingredients for a hoot? Burns could have gone is several directions in determining the tone and demeanor his characters would take. He chose the broadest, the smarmiest, and possibly the funniest approach. His characters practically revel in their evil. They can’t wait to practice it and, to a person, get giddy at the prospect of putting something over on their chosen dupe. From the audience point of view, all is bright and hilarious. We can bask in the same perfidy the characters enjoy so much. We can forget propriety and nobility as we watch schemers who only pretend to one of the other to further their aims. Burns makes his “Mandrake” a merry laughfest that exults in the characters’ malevolence and lets us savor watching how low they can wallow in it.

Few holds are barred in Burns’s staging. Josh Carpenter is standard villain, his back stooped, his head cocked forward and tilted towards his right, one eye opened a little wider than the other, his hand clawed and constantly massaging his fingers in greedy cogitation of crime. He’s like Richard III with nasal congestion or Sir Guy de Guy (a nasty puppet from early television) with more range of motion. Carpenter does everything he can to make Ligurio into a walking, cringing reptile that, nonetheless, has the wisdom and talent to devise elaborate schemes, double or triple deal to gain the confidence of two adversarial parties at one, and come up with quick and misleading answers when matters look as if they’re going to implode disastrously. As written by Machiavelli and Shawn, this man could be press secretary for the President of the United States. As played by Carpenter, he’s a devilish worm who looks so transparently shady, no one would trust him but who is so persuasive that everybody does.

Carpenter is not the only one who takes risks and who gets laughs via broad shtick that is also right for Burns’s lampooning style of presenting Machiavelli’s play. Alan Brincks, playing a rich nobleman who moves to Florence just to seduce and enjoy the most beautiful woman he ever saw despite her being wed, is instructed by Ligurio, for the good of one fraud, to assume an antic disposition. Brincks obliges entertainingly by moving his mouth to one side, exposing his full range of teeth, and doing the zombie chomp from “The Walking Dead.” It seems extreme, but it works.

Everything in Burns’s production works. Machiavelli snidely shows us how no one is beyond corruption. In fact, it is the joy in corruption that sparks some characters to go along with Ligurio, Nicia, the husband of Lucrezia, the woman Brincks’s nobleman craves for his bedmate, is more easily gulled, and cuckolded, because he believes he’s getting what he wants at another person’s expense, that expense, being what Nicio believes is death. A priest, played with savory cunning by Sean Close, and a pious woman who happens to be Lucrezia’s mother, played with all self-serving guile by E. Ashley Izard, give Machiavelli a chance to show the church is no better than a randy aristocrat, prosperous merchant, or unctuous factotum when it comes to looking out for itself and its gain, honest or not. Close, who gives his best performance ever on the Quintessence stage, makes his Brother Timothy especially interesting because he so clearly indicates the priest is the one person, besides perhaps Ligurio, who knows right from wrong and is aware of his complicit villainy but covets the compensation he’ll receive from cooperating more than he fears irreparable damage to his mortal soul. Izard’s Sostrata, is likewise pragmatic and self-interested in helping with her end of Ligurio’s plot.

Burns’s “The Mandrake” remains a guilty pleasure throughout its duration. It drips with its enjoyment of presenting unmitigated Machiavellian evil on a grand scale. You can’t but be entertained by the clever gambits the characters put into play and the elation those characters derive from them. It’s all so scrumptiously amoral, you can’t wait to see the next deception, the next gullible accepting of the preposterous, and the fun the characters have at being bad. I, who have railed against overly cartoonish approaches in various productions, applaud Burn’s choice to stay light and comic because his production works so splendidly. It tells Machiavelli’s story and lets you have a reaction while remaining briskly entertaining and letting you take as much delight in Ligurio’s wicked plots as the characters do.

Although done as a farcical lark, with witty rather than sappy self-consciousness, Burns’s production never allows hamming or sarcasm. The broad style allows the cast enough leeway without them having to overdo it. Machiavelli, once you see the face value through all the conniving, comments enough on the venality, selfishness, opportunism, and greed of humankind without Burns having to take extraordinary measures to make that clear.

Actors were obviously told to be as funny as they can within the ample bounds of farce. Carpenter makes the most use of this freedom, but Connor Hammond finds joy frolicking while wearing oversized monkey-doll ears, and Brincks, Close, Izard, and even Jahzeer Terrell, in a small part as a troubadour narrator find overt ways to elicit laughs while staying within the wide latitude of their characters.

NealBoxFormal, more serious productions of “The Mandrake” would be just as plausible, but Burns’s looseness, comic version underscores the juiciness in Machiavelli’s convoluted but, of course, masterfully controlled, plot.

Brincks’s character, Callimaco, is a wealthy Parisian, the scion of a noble French family. He can afford anything he wants, but coitus with a married woman presents a problem. Though Callimaco believes the woman, Lurezia, will be attracted to him on sight, he hears she is jealously guarded by her husband, Nicia, and may not be society enough for her to see him or for him to make overtures to her.

Callimaco has heard that Lucrezia is the most beautiful woman in the world, and he is determined to have her as a lover no matter what it takes.

“What it takes” are magic words to Ligurio. As portrayed by Josh Carpenter, he is a versatile Figaro with more deformity and much less charm. Carpenter’s Ligurio is positively reptilian. A child would know on sight on steer clear of him.

But he’s a man who can get things done and is not fussy about how he manages desired outcomes as long as he profits from them. You also get the sense he enjoys making mischief and watching others experience humiliation or shame.

Ligurio ha a remedy for everything, and he is sure he can help procure Lucrezia for Callimaco. All it will take is the right scheme and a few bagsful of ducats. Callimaco and Ligurio are both lucky in Callimaco’s servant, Siro, being a born intriguer who goes about his nefarious tasks with impish relish. Connor Hammond, the achingly romantic Romeo in “The Mandrake’s” repertory companion, “Romeo and Juliet,” is more like a sprightly Ariel in this play. He is the eager assistant and willing participant who enjoys every stunt or stratagem Callimaco employs to do.

Wily Ligurio finds out Nicia is desperate to have a child and heir and that Lucrezia has not conceived by him. That sets Ligurio’s mind going. He will persuade Nicia to take Lucrezia to another setting that might be more salubrious for conception. Callimaco will go to whatever resort Nicia chooses, have sex with Lucrezia, and perhaps, by coincidence, give Nicia the child he craves.

That idea is too tame for Machiavelli. He gives Callimaco a better suggestion. The nobleman will remember hearing of a drug, made from mandrake root, that will make the woman who takes it fertile but kill the man who shares the potion with her. He poses as a doctor to broach this possibility with Nicia, who takes to it immediately. As Nicia understands matters, she will be nearly comatose during intercourse but arise from her stupor newly pregnant while the poor soul who provides the seed will leave the bedchamber his lusty self but die within the day.

Of course, there’s no such mandrake root, but Nicia likes the idea. He will give the potion to Lucrezia and waylay some stranger, a friendless soul a la Mrs. Lovett’s victims in “Sweeney Todd,” to be her lover and the father of the child he will claim as his own.

Machiavelli piles on complexity after complexity after Nicia agrees to Callimaco’s outrageous proposition. The clergy becomes involved as Ligurion thinks Sostrata’s father confessor will convince mother and daughter to do along the plot. Bags of money are promised, and some are even exchanged although Ligurio knows the value of making accomplices wait for payment and holds out more cash than he’ll deliver until all goes as concocted. The negotiations, as performed by the Quintessence cast, are pricelessly entertaining, Close, Brincks, Carpenter, and Hammond make an ebullient quarter of swindlers. Close is especially good as he replaces what should be Brother Timothy’s revulsion of sin with a worry about getting caught or not receiving full remuneration due, spoken of a a donation to the church, by the wily Ligurio. Gregory Isaac, as Nicia, is meanwhile the perfect dupe, dancing a jig at one moment when he knows the perfidious plot is going to hatch, taking umbrage in a scene in which Ligurio has ordered him to play deaf while he spends the next two minutes disparaging him to Brother Timothy, and being an avidly excited spectator as Callimaco enjoys Lucrezia. He gives blow-by-blow (no pun intended) descriptions to the other allies who thrill to hear the man they conned sing so happily at being cuckolded.

Machiavelli lets no one go untainted. Everyone’s motives are foul, and everyone thoroughly enjoys the ruse he is pulling. Carpenter’s Ligurio has a particular good time because he is involved in everyone’s trickery and abuse. Even Hammond’s Siro seems to be hungrily gobbling the education he’s receiving in unfettered guile by working so closely with Ligurio and Callimaco and witnessing the complicity of Brother Timothy and Izard’s truly open-minded, thoroughly amused, thoroughly amusing Sostrata.

Machiavelli’s Florence is every bit a place of skullduggery and deceit as it is an Enlightenment seat of culture. You see, via Burns’s production, how deftly the strategist’s mind works and how smoothly he turns his attention from Medici politics to characters he can make so entertaining on the stage. Shawn’s translation fits well Burns’s option to use broad, direct comedy, so the Quintessence production and his text are a good fit.

Alexander Burns’s utilitarian set served the production well as did Jane Casanave’s costumes. David Cope’s ditties, sung well by Jahzeer Terrell and Anita Holland, were in a more traditional vein than Burns’s productions, but they worked as introductions, helped to set up the scenes, and gave Terrell and Holland a significant reason to be on stage.

All of the actors acquitted themselves well, but I was particularly happy to see Sean Close come into his own with his clever turn as Brother Timothy. E. Ashley Izard also gets to show range, as she does in “Romeo and Juliet.” Josh Carpenter’s oily, unsavory Ligurio could be controversial for his dingy, snaky demeanor — Who would talk to him let alone trust him? — but the actor is so crafty and entertaining, he makes everything work and becomes a welcome centerpiece to Machiavelli’s action. Emiley Kiser is the one actor called upon to play matters straight, and she does so with great discipline that also adds to the comedy, Kiser is particularly funny after Lucrezia has been with Callamico and makes it known she wants to see him again. And again. They do live near each other after.

Gregory Isaac is a splendid Nicia, dancing in conspiratorial delight one minute, giving the duplicitous Ligurio dirty looks the next, and making a comic gem of Nicia’s play by play of Lucrezia’s night with her secret, and doomed, impregnator. It is particularly delicious when Isaac’s Nicia tells how carefully he prepared everything and insisted on fresh sheets.

Quintessence secret weapon Alan Brincks once more gives a witty, detailed performance, this time as the assured, determined Callimaco. Brincks is wonderful in the scenes in which he shows how Callimaco will act as the unfortunate man who will be kidnapped to make a child with Lucrezia. You can tell he enjoys the bits in which Callimaco is gulling Nicia into thinking he’s a doctor with a surefire remedy.

‘The Mandrake,” produced by the Quintessence Theatre Group, runs through Sunday, November 8, at the company home, the Sedgwick Theatre, 7137 Germantown Avenue, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are staggered because “The Mandrake” is in repertory with a Quintessence production of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet. They are 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct, 26, 8 p.m. Friday, October 30, 7 p.m. Thursday, November 5, 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 7, and 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 8. Tickets range from $34 to $27 and can be obtained by calling 215-987-4450 or by visiting

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