Arts & Events

Theatre Review: The Prince at Berkeley City Club ends this Sunday!

By John A. McMullen II
Tuesday August 17, 2010 - 11:49:00 AM
Colin Alexander Smith & Mark Farrell in The Prince
Jay Yamada
Colin Alexander Smith & Mark Farrell in The Prince

Gary Graves has written a masterful 70-minute duet and duel between Lorenzo de’ Medici and Niccolò Machiavelli. You should grab a ticket quick to this Central Works production since it closes its run at Berkeley City Club this weekend.  

Of course, THE PRINCE is that little book we were all supposed to read in Poli Sci 101, but never got past the first few pages. It is advice on how to be a prince or a president—or a mob-boss. It’s the ultimate argument for The End Justifying The Means, and it earned the author the legacy of his name being synonymous with the Devil. In the theatre, a “Machiavel” is the name the Elizabethans gave to unrepentant stage villains like Iago and Richard III. 

I would use the word “didactic,” which means “intending to teach or enlighten,” but, like the word “Machiavel,” it carries another connotation of “boring,” and this play certainly is not boring, not for a one moment.  

Lorenzo has just come to power in bankrupt Florence, and sends for his banished teacher to act as his ambassador in seeking a peace treaty with a threatening enemy. Machiavelli wants to be more than his emissary; he wants to be his consigliere and teach him how to rule.  

But Lorenzo is caught in the conundrum of serving two masters: fulfilling the Peaceful Nazarene’s Teachings versus securing the survival of his state with Beastly Realpolitik.  

Played in the palatial room that houses Central Works, the set is simply a table and chair out of the Cinquecento set against the grand hearth that Julia Morgan designed... On one wall hangs The Battle of Anghiari that Machiavelli actually commissioned Leonardo da Vinci to draw. On the other wall, a light throws a gobo cut-out of the Old Rugged Cross. Our pair is dressed in modern business suits, and the play deftly straddles the then-and-now 

The situation: the general coffers of the City-State are empty, the infrastructure is crumbling, the defunct Republic has failed due to the old senators’ bickering and favoring their own business interests over statesmanship (the more things change…, etc.). The audience laughed aloud more than once at the parallels to our contemporary troubles. 

There has been awful savagery among the Nation States of the Italian peninsula with the sort of barbarism we saw on the news in Serbia in the 90’s and Central Africa today. An old family foe threatens to invade. Sue for peace, or reenact the last scene from “The Godfather”…what to do, what to do?  

Colin Alexander Smith as Lorenzo de’ Medici wears a suit that could be from a Milan tailor accessorized with a purple tie, just enough to suggest his vanity and a little bit of Mafiosi. He uses his authoritarian baritone to disguise his indecision, and convincingly portrays a man with much inner turmoil whose actions either way will result in much spilled blood.  

Mark Farrell as Machiavelli plays the perfect Florentine Kissinger, always charming and proving his point repeatedly with all the examples of antiquity at his fingertips. Farrell has a verbal facility of alternating quick-paced argumentation with subservience that captivates the audience.  

The timbres of their voices are well-paired which is a subtlety important in casting any duet. 

Their vivace and sometimes presto delivery of Graves’ richly phrased arguments, anecdotes and images spins like a top that never wavers and holds us in thrall such that we seldom notice the acting. The movement is by and large natural with occasional forays into the theatrical. But this is forgivable, for it is believable that rulers and the courtly men who serve them tend to behave grandly, perhaps to impress and remind those around them of their station—particularly if they are expressive and high-born Italians.  

Graves directed, and concocted a realistic and functional little piece of blocking that made me smile: he has Machiavelli open the leaded glass doors of the theatre that open onto the garden. It was real environmental theatre when this inspired and natural staging let in a cool breeze that refreshed the fifty onlookers, a capacity audience for this intimate theatre. 

Staging in such a long rectangle with the audience on three sides is a challenge. The first row does not afford the “empathetic distance” necessary to maintain the dramatic illusion since the actors are so close. I would choose to sit in the second row on the risers.  

It’s the second go-round for this play, and it is education and entertainment that fills you up and makes you think. They will talk about this one for a while, so catch it if you can.  

THE PRINCE: a new play based on the infamous “Handbook for Tyrants” 

at the Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Ave., Berkeley  

Thu-Sat at 8pm & Sun at 5 pm through August 22. 

Info Tickets (510) 558-1381 or  

A Central Works Method Play developed in collaboration with Richard Frederick, Michael Navarra, and Jan Zvaifler. 

Written and directed by Gary Graves, costumes by Tammy Berlin, sound by Gregory Scharpen, and stage management by Louel Señores. 

WITH: Mark Farrell and Colin Alexander Smith.