Can there be politics without drama? Can there be drama without sex? Can there be sex without power? Apparently not.
These questions and the topics they address are some of the classic elements of a successful drama. Surprisingly, one of the greatest sources of these elements has never been explored before. Richard VetereMachiavelli, which is currently being performed at the Arclight Theatre, is the first commercial show to be performed about the Italian philosopher.
Written in a satirical style, similar to Machiavelli’s own dramatic farce The Mandrake , the show explores the Italian’s life, both political and personal. The story begins when he is imprisoned in Florence and inspired to write The Prince. Peppered with scenes of his interactions with the political leaders, James Wetzel’s performance of Machiavelli allows his cunning skills of manipulation are demonstrated for the audience to see first-hand. Somehow he goes from being tortured by the prison guards in the gallows to feasting on fruit and wine while dressed in plush robes in the course of a few conversations.
While Machiavelli as a politician is fascinating, it is the scenes of him as a husband and father that truly flesh out the play. The relationship between him and his wife Marietta is especially endearing, as they pepper their philosophical and political discussions with domestic squabbles. Liza Vann’s Marietta is one of the highlights of the show, both shrewd and sharp eyed. She is her husband’s equal, working behind the scenes to help him in his endeavors. However, Stephanie Janssen as his daughter Baccina is simply an unbelievable character. She is too innocent and too doe-eyed, and the supposed closeness between her and her father is doubtful, despite how it is described in the script.
When she informs her family that she is in love with Prince Lorenzo, the man responsible for banning her family from their beloved Florence, what is supposed to be a declaration of independence as a grown woman comes across more as a child-like stamping of her foot and insistence of, “it is because I said so.” When she enters the stage draped completely in black to mourn her lost lover and to demonstrate her continued anger towards her father, she appears merely petulant. It is impossible to feel pity for this girl.
The level of comedy required by the actors to perform this farcical style is a delicate balance, and while Machivelli and his wife are able to maintain it, other members of the cast are not, and their performances weigh down the show, causing the dialogue to appear more heavy-handed than it is. Chip Pillips’s Prince Guiliano and Jason Howard’s Lorenzo are both overdone, even for a play that is a farce. Lex Woutas’s Alfonzo, however, shines as the narrator and Horatio-like observer. He speaks his lines like they are poetry – which, sometimes, they are.
“You now have my permission to dwell during intermission,” he states solemnly at the end of the first act.
The comedy of the show is light, but poignant. It is more of a sly poke in the side, provoking thought as well as laughter, instead of blunt physical comedy. It marries a blend of politics and government as well as love and personality.
The show holds special relevance to today’s world, and many lines that are spoken in a setting of the 1500s could be spoken today. When Machiavelli is ordered to confess and asks, “How can I confess when I don’t know why I’m here?” seems especially timely given the recent news about Guantanamo Bay.
However, it is questionable how audiences will respond to this intelligent and timely play. In a society of superficiality and escapism, few will want to watch two hours of Italian history on stage, no matter how relevant it is.
It is impossible to ignore the meaning of one of Machiavelli’s statements: “Never again must we allow a single family, a single ruler, to take our freedom from us.” Perhaps this history lesson of the 1500s can encourage people of 2006 to take action.
(Click below to go to the next page for an interview with Machiavelli mastermind playwright Richard Vetere)
Interview By Carey Purcell
Interview with Machiavelli playwright Richard Vetere
Like all great stories, it began with a girl.
Richard Vetere was attending graduate school at Columbia University when he saw a “really pretty girl” sitting next to him in class. Immediately smitten, he wrote her a love letter, which she responded to by saying she had a boyfriend. This boyfriend, who was serving in Vietnam, wrote her a love poem, which she showed to Vetere. He then went home and wrote a poem of his own.
He has been writing since then.
Vetere is the author of numerous plays, both for the stage and the screen, and the novel The Third Miracle, as well as various scripts for television. His writing has spanned various topics, the most recent being the famous Italian philosopher Machiavelli. After an Off-Off-Broadway run at Manhattan Theatre Source in January, the production recently opened Off-Broadway at the Arclight Theatre, where it will run until November 5.
Written in a farcical style similar to that of Machiavelli’s own work, The Mandrake, the play explores the philosopher’s influence on the politics of Italy but also on his personal life, focusing on his family.
“People in history become metaphors for us,” he said. “I felt Machiavelli was a metaphor for diabolical behavior. And that wasn’t fair for him.” He paused. “He’s an antihero or hero – I’m not sure yet.”
While researching the topic of his play, Vetere said his opinion of Machiavelli changed drastically.
“I always thought of him as this evil guy,” he said. “I got interested in why – what was the motivation…I have always been fascinated with people who could deal with evil people and not become evil.”
Machiavelli’s political thinking differed greatly from that of the masses during his time. Much political thinking in Italy was about religion, not about human behavior, and Machiavelli felt that the government should be amoral.
It was the timelessness of Machiavelli’s life that was a large appeal to Vetere. The issues of religion influencing politics, and the mingling of political and personal life are prominent in the show.
“Machiavelli dealt with issues that we’re still dealing with today,” he said. “He said that it is all about the people – look at humanity. Humanity is weak willed. People will go with what is there, then.”
He paused, then added, “I wish someone in the Bush administration would read the Prince.”
Vetere felt that Machiavelli did not work alone. He gave Machievelli’s wife Marietta a large role in the script, depicting her as Machiavelli’s partner, both at work and at home. He said he viewed them similarly to Bill and Hillary Clinton.
However, Vetere said that he was doubtful of the reception his play would receive.
“Since 9/11 a lot of people have said, ‘This is going to change everything. People will be thinking more.’ Instead, people have become more superficial.
“I don’t really have a lot of faith in American culture responding to issues,” he continued. “American culture is so insulated from politics. It used to be that if something was going to be a hit if it was about an issue. But now, not so much.”
Despite his opinions about society in general, Vetere said he would always have to keep writing. He described a scene he observed recently that depicted why he felt the need to keep delivering ideas and dialogue.
“I was at the Tropicana Bar in LA, and I saw an actress with a girl and two guys. They were all sitting there text-messaging. I watched them for 20 minutes and they didn’t say a word to each other. I said to myself, ‘What happened to conversation, to the gift and art of ideas?’”
When asked if he used text-messaging himself, his answer was an empathic no. “I don’t know how to,” he added.
He thinks that theater will always exist and he will always be writing.
“Bringing up dialogue is my job as a writer. Theater is a visceral thing – these actors are representative of us in society. I’m looking for that visceral connection.”