The Free Press, Mankato, MN

October 15, 2012

Gasp! Ribaldry and deceit take stage in Machiavelli's 'The Mandrake'

By Tanner Kent
The Free Press

MANKATO — Paul Hustoles was in a meeting with other theater academics from the region when he mentioned Minnesota State University’s upcoming production of Niccolo Machiavelli’s satirical comedy “The Mandrake.”

He could hear the reaction.

“There was a collective gasp,” he said.

Were they murmuring because of the utterly Machiavellian principles at work amongst the characters who conspire to replace a young woman’s old and unpleasant husband with a younger and more virulent lover?

Not exactly.

Were the other academics in the room tittering over the play’s ribald humor, double entendre and richly sexual dialogue?

Not that either.

Hustoles said the gasp was really an illustration of how rare performances of “The Mandrake” have become. Despite its immense popularity at the time -- Machiavelli wrote the play in 1518 against the backdrop of evolving Renaissance ideas about religion, politics and art -- Hustoles said “The Mandrake” has become something of a scarcity.

“No one has seen this performed,” said Hustoles, who is the chair of MSU’s Department of Theatre and Dance and is directing the performance that makes its MSU debut Thursday. “It’s very rarely done.”

Hustoles attributed the play’s lack of production popularity to the fact that theaters almost always choose Shakespeare or one of the Greek playwrights when selecting a classical work.

And that’s surprising, given the play’s strikingly contemporary feel.

To summarize, a 16th-century Italian woman named Lucrezia is engaged to an elderly lawyer who desperately wants an heir. But the lovely Lucrezia is also coveted by Callimaco, who schemes with a shady marriage fixer and a priest to seduce the beautiful woman.

The characters are delightfully wicked, operating under the Machiavellian principle that “the ends justify the means.” None of the characters are spared from the satirist’s eye as deceit becomes the primary avenue of personal gain.

Rife with fast-paced, complex dialogue -- sprinkled liberally with lewdness and vulgarity -- the work certainly deserves the disclaimer: Contains mature language and themes.

“The word ‘ribald’ was invented for a show like this,” Hustoles said. “This could not play on network TV right now. It would have to be on cable.”

Hustoles has chosen to direct the play in the round, and to use the original setting of 16th century Florence, Italy. The production also includes the periodic appearance of a four-person singing troupe. Lyrics were provided by Hustoles and put to music by MSU alumnus and Bethany Lutheran College director Peter Bloedel.

Robb Krueger is wrapping up his masters studies with a thesis on “The Mandrake” and was cast in the role of Lord Nicia, Lucrezia’s aging husband. Naturally, a great deal of his recent hours have been spent rehearsing, researching and analyzing Machiavelli’s text.

He said the play’s density and its author’s clever prose continue to yield moments of discovery.

“It’s very alive,” Krueger said. “The dialogue is incredibly complicated -- but it’s a lot of fun.”