(crosspost from irrecollections.com)
Aside from poor acting, poor design, and poor direction (most versions commit one, two, or all of these sins), most productions appear to misunderstand–and therefore misrepresent–the text. Though a lot of misconception stems from a misrepresentation of Machiavelli himself (preferring the mustache-twirling villain over the historian, linguist, and political writer), a lot of confusion proceeds from a misunderstanding of the play’s goals: The Mandrake is a test of Latin language, themes, and types. Machiavelli borrows characters, scenes, and beats from Terence and Plautus and reworks them for a contemporary audience. And it’s funny when these moments fall flat; it’s funnier still when Machiavelli calls direct attention to them: we laugh at Siro’s lack of enthusiasm in Callimaco’s plan; we chuckle at Lucrezia’s disenchantment with (literally) everything. These self-aware, awkward, clunky moments are funny in much the same way The Princess Bride’s overblown acting, over-dramatic score, and cliched script are funny.
To illustrate, here is Malachi Bogdanov’s production of The Mandrake Root. You can watch all of it if you like. I wouldn’t:
This production fails to humor me. I didn’t smile once during its 1 hour and 14 minute run time, and you likely didn’t either (or at least you shouldn’t have). I wouldn’t waste my time showing this to students.
And my distaste for this film has nothing to do with its Wiseau-esque opening credits or its painfully wooden acting–or even its standardization of Machiavelli’s already standardized characters (as if that was even possible!). My problem is one of intention: The Mandrake Root attempts to play The Mandrake straight; the characters take themselves seriously, undermining the humor that has kept the play alive for almost 500 years. Again, The Mandrake is a testing-ground for existing tropes in Latin comedy–and, better, a testing-ground for Machiavelli.
Machiavelli’s script is self-aware, and The Mandrake is as much a parody of the author as it is a parody of Latin comedy. Stylized, discourse-ish dialogue (vis a vis The Prince) is funny when magnified and tested. Callimaco’s grand speech in 1.1 is repeatedly undermined by Siro’s interjections and disinterest. Nicia’s hyperbolic love for Latin language and culture is undercut by Callimaco’s faux-Latin gobblety-gook. The play repeatedly parodies ‘Machiavellian’ archetypes, and it should be played lightly.
Here is a clip from The Princess Bride:
Though this isn’t a clip from The Mandrake, it illustrates my point well. Wallace Shawn, who translated The Mandrake in 1971, plays the scheming Sicilian Vizini. Note the discourse-like quality of the dialogue–how quickly both Vizini and The Dread Pirate Roberts recite overblown, faux-intellectual dialogue; how the score heightens and dramatizes the scene, despite talking heads; and how incredibly disinterested Buttercup looks, despite the knife at her throat. Though this isn’t a production of The Mandrake, it might as well be; and Shawn brilliantly executes this scene–from his smug grin to his sudden, anticlimactic death. The scene (and the film) is self-aware and lighthearted. It pokes holes in 80s high fantasy by embracing the genre’s tropes and exaggerating them.
This is what The Mandrake should do, and this is why most productions suck.
TL; DR: The Mandrake is a really smart play that’s smart about being dumb, and everyone plays it as a smart play trying to be smart, which is dumb. Don’t be dumb: be smart: be dumb.