IT'S SPRINGTIME: A sexy farce heats up.
In a Machiavellian world-view, the ends justify even the most unscrupulous of means. The man immortalized in this timely political adjective is Niccolò Machiavelli, a writer, military advisor, and nubile participant in late-15th and early-16th century Italian political intrigues. His innuendo-laden comedy The Mandrake is two things: a satire of Italian civil corruption, and a brazenly crass sex farce. In directing it for the University of Southern Maine’s rollicking production at the St. Lawrence, William Steele opts whole-heartedly to focus on the sex farce (“Heck, it’s spring,” he explains in the program notes). The result is a delicious, decadent, blithely sleazy zinger of a show.
The main motivations at work in The Mandrake are lusts for sex, money, and progeny. At the center is young nobleman Callimaco (Nick Cyr), just returned from exile in Paris and quite literally swollen with desire for young Lucrezia (Alicía Ouellette). The problem is that she’s entrenched in a virility-challenged marriage with the doddering old lawyer Lord Nicia (Andrew Coffey). But luckily, Callimaco’s friend Ligurio (Parker Newton) is a consummate schemer. Working with Callimaco, Nicio, and the corrupt friar Brother Timothy (Jeffrey Toombs) — and collecting fees from all — he cooks up an elaborate deception to satisfy everybody’s interests.
How the mandrake comes into play is in a bogus potion that Callimaco, posing to Nicia as a doctor, says will allow Lucrezia to conceive. The only catch is that after she downs it, the first man to have sex with her will die. You can see, I dare say, where this is going.
Steele’s direction is quick, lush with burlesque (at times, perhaps just a touch too heavy on the mugging), and cheerfully lewd. Any line with the slightest hint of double entendre gets the full treatment of groans, grunts, and pumping gestures toward nether regions. As the reed-slim Callimaco, the most afflicted in this department (and outfitted with an elaborate, plump, wine-colored codpiece) Cyr is quite winning. He and Newton have a wonderfully fun and dirty rapport, and they exchange some hilarious looks over the big hat of Nicio as they scam him. As their morally limber co-conspirator Brother Timothy, Toombs, with a pale, crafty moonface, performs some exquisite narration. He does a magnificent job of portraying a superior intelligence smart enough to subvert both logic and morals, and believe them, when it serves him best.
The setting and bright period costumes in which all these opportunists cavort (designed, respectively, by Charles S. Kading and Kris Hall) are superbly plush. The set, a courtyard between stuccoed walls of pale gold, lavender, and salmon, is elegant and well-suited to the intimate space of the St. Lawrence. And ah, the clothing: Ligurio is done up in golds and white fur, while Nicio has been given a huge prosthetic belly and an absurd number of quilted puffs in his rainbow sleeves. Brother Timothy’s brown garb is, for a monk, ridiculously sumptuous — velveteen, gold, oversized rosary beads wrapped in copper and crimson silk thread. And Lucrezia’s mother, once and perhaps still a whore (Janelle LoSciuoto), wears an emerald dress for which I myself would commit no small number of Machiavellian acts.