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CurtainUp DC Review
by Rich See
In fact, the entire technical team seems to have worked overtime on this production. Murell Horton's costume designs are sumptuous, especially those of Florence's ruler, Duke Alessandro de Medici. This of course makes greats sense. Here is a man with a penchant for making people miserable -- simply because he likes to see them squirm. It would be in the citizens' best interest, then, not to dress better than the man who could have them executed on a whim. Interestingly, the Duke's playmate Lorenzaccio, although from an equally wealthy family, is dressed in far less finery than his cousin. His clothes confirm, on the outside, the dissipation and loss of hope with which the character is grappling on the inside.
Howell Binkley's lighting is subtle and constantly shifting. Composer and Sound Designer Scott Killian's score is equally enjoyable and adds to the varying moods of the piece. It all comes together so well -- acting, directing, and technically -- that one realizes Shakespeare Theatre has raised the bar, again.
Local playwright John Strand has created a new adaptation and translation of Alfred de Musset's historical drama. De Musset was 23 years old when he started Lorenzaccio during a tempestuous love affair with the writer George Sand. It was Sand who inspired Musset to write the play -- by giving him a copy of her six scene, sixty-five page playlet Une Conspiration en 1537. Still stinging from the public failure of his first play, de Musset wrote Lorenzaccio as a bit of "theatre dans un fauteuil" -- armchair theatre that was simply designed to be read as literature and not performed. It was not until 1896, when Sarah Bernhardt brought the role of Lorenzo to the stage, that the play was first produced. This was over 60 years after it had been written and almost forty years after de Musset's death in 1857.
Lorenzaccio's themes are classic. Emperor Charles V and Pope Clement VII have forcefully placed the bastard Alessandro de Medici as the new Duke of Florence, thereby bringing to an end the Florentine republic. Alessandro is being kept in power with the use of German soldiers, which causes a great deal of resentment among the people. To make matters worse, he not only rules with an iron fist -- executing people for sport or simply because they annoy him -- but also has a penchant for carousing and sexual excess.
By his side is the title character, his cousin Lorenzo, often cruelly called "Lorenzaccio." Lorenzo is not only the Duke's playmate, occasionally joining him in his bed, but also the Duke's eyes and ears. Using his connections and charm, Lorenzo informs Alessandro of any gossip that the wealthy families of Florence are saying behind the Duke's back. Thus, one after the other, the once mighty families are being sent packing, their homes being taken over by the Duke, as they are banished into exile. From this mix of unhappiness come competing plots to free the people of Florence from Alessandro's tyranny. The Countess Cibo works at the Duke's heart while the Cardinal Cibo attempts to work through his loins. Philip Strozzi chooses to pursue the rule of law, while his son Piero insists violent revolt is the only acceptable means to freedom. Meanwhile, Lorenzo de Medici is unfolding an entirely different plan as he imagines himself the Florentine Brutus, an "instrument of God" sent down to free the people.
Playwright Strand has created a riveting epic in his new adaptation and translation. To his credit he has purposely toned down Alessandro's evilness, brightened up Lorenzo's gloominess, and added a deeper dimension to the female characters, while more vividly bringing out the humor and life in the secondary roles. If there is a flaw, it is in how Strand handles his topical references to today's world. Occasionally the actors sound a bit too modern, which takes them out of context and character. For the most part, though, the relation works very well, especially in the play's comic moments.
Director Michael Kahn seems to be having a great deal of fun with the show. And how could he not? Rakish men, a guiltlessly cruel yet lovable ruler, a tortured hero, a subtle homoerotic subtext, women in love with power and decadence, and a man of intellect with a scheming son. The wood is set, all we need is a match to light it and Mr. Kahn does this with impeccable timing, tight delivery, and a fast pace that keeps the almost three hour running time moving along and never lagging.
In the leads, Jeffrey Carlson as Lorenzo and Robert Cuccioli as his cousin, Alessandro de Medici, create an intense chemistry that is both believable and alluring. These are two men, seemingly in a love/hate relationship with each other, who are still boys at heart. It's Mr. Cuccioli's charisma and rakish persona that keep us bouncing back and forth. We love the Duke's impudence and arrogance, we hate the fact he is deflowering 15-year old girls; we love how he sends lewd letters to women demanding they leave their husbands' beds and join him in his own, we are appalled at how he threatens people with death if they disobey him. When he suggests to Carlson's Lorenzo that the anguished young man might enjoy a sexual three-way with himself and Lorenzo's own sister Catherine, you are less outraged than humored.
As for Jeffrey Carlson's Lorenzo -- the man is a dynamo of energy, jumping around the stage, alternately being boisterous and then depressed, glib and then serious. And the whole time wearing a pallor of death and coughing ever so gently. It's as if he is being eaten away both emotionally and physically by the inner burden of trying to be the Florentine Brutus.
Both Mr. Carlson and Mr. Cuccioli give outstanding performances, and the entire cast shines! David Sabin as the cloth seller Paolo and Kate Kiley as his wife Sofia are engaging as they bicker at the beginning and end of the play. Their roles are nice bookends to the production and part of the evenings' comic highlights. Chandler Vinton's Countess Cibo is a terrific thwart to her ambitious brother-in-law Cardinal Cibo (played by Michael Rudko). Floyd King is right on target as the papal envoy Valori. He brings a certain rye charm to the role, making you sense he is less religious than practical, and not so holy as to miss the enjoyment in life. As the oldest family in Florence, the Strozzi's, Ted van Griethuysen, Pedro Pascal, and Colleen Delany bring an interesting blend of reason and passion. Marni Penning's earnestness as Catherine de Medici, Lorenzo's doomed for a nunnery sister, visually presents the plight of women in the 16th-Century. Headed for a lifetime of silence, she would like just one fling. Even if it is with the Duke, you wish she'd get it. Tana Hicken, as Lorenzo's perplexed and grieving mother Marie de Medici, provides a sense that the Medici's weren't always a bad bunch. Her confusion over her son's seeming embrace of the Duke's infamous ways seems genuine. And finally, Aubrey Deeker's painter Tebaldeo is a model of relaxed manner and good-guy-next-doorness.
Shakespeare Theatre once again brings a classic to life making it relevant and accessible to Washington audiences. This production is a gem in the 2004-2005 theatre season!
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2005 Movie Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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