Playwright: Niccolo Machiavelli. At: Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells. Phone: 312-943-8722; $25-$30. Runs through: May 24
Something that we need to remember about this early Renaissance Italian play is that it is NOT, and never was, intended to be simply a bedroom farce. Granted, its plot follows the lines of classic commedia dell'arte: a lusty young nobleman finagles his way into a virtuous wife's bed by appealing to her kinfolk's greed (all discussions of chastity ultimately come down to preservation of the family property, you know). The goal of Niccolo Machiavelli's satirical comedy, however, was to illustrateand even defendthe corruption infecting his society's protectors.
It's not easy to market a text having more in common with, say, Plato's Republic than with The Three Cuckolds, so who can blame unimaginative theater companies for pretending that the father of political pragmatism once fancied a career in show business, freeing them to indulge in generic nudge-ogle-and-wink slapstick? But director Steve Scott is not content to take the low road, instead scaling down the action to the cozy dimensions of Red Orchid's 50-seat auditorium and, in doing so, allowing its personae to speak conversationally, with a minimum of mugging.
The tone of the show is established early on, when Ligurio, the local "fixer"played with unflappable urbanity by Lance Bakerengages in patter with front-row theatergoers, promising a tipple from the wine bottle onstage to any patron unamused by the events to follow (or, if you're a pretty girl, just declaring yourself thirsty, as at the performance I attended). The physical comedy centers on such subtleties as handshakes and hugs, all clearly visible from every corner of the house, with a trace of slam-bang buffoonery when David Chrzanowski's lanky Father Timoteo dons a prosthetic-heavy disguise. There is also a remarkable absence of overtly-sexual shtik, when you consider that the plot traces the progress of a chaste woman coming to accept adultery as God's will, on the advice of her legal, spiritual and filial counselors.
This contemplative approach would not be possible without actors willing to rein themselves in. Fortunately, the ensemble convened for this vest-pocket production never swerves from its characters' hypocritical convictions, allowing us to recognize for ourselvesor notthe impropriety of, say, a priest offering to assist in an abortion (for a price, of course). By the time the luscious Dona Lucrezia happily embarks on her life of marital infidelity, gullible audience members should readily endorse the author's amoral dictum about ends justifying means.