Lessons from a toppled tyrant in another time

19th-century play aptly foreshadows current events


February 08, 2005|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN ARTS WRITER

Oh, if only George W. Bush could have seen the gripping, 19th- century French drama Lorenzaccio before he first was sworn in as commander-in-chief.

Alfred de Musset's play centers on the assassination of a tyrant. There's an occupying army detested by the citizenry. And there's the utter lack of a day-after plan once the repressive regime has been toppled, plunging the country into chaos.

Sound familiar?

If so, it's no coincidence. Though the action is set in 16th-century Italy and based on a historic event - the murder of ruler Alessandro de Medici, Duke of Florence - de Musset's play has been adapted by John Strand, a 21st-century American playwright.

While the basic plot elements are de Musset's, Strand modernizes the story for a contemporary audience. He eliminates vast chunks of repetitious verbiage (Lorenzaccio originally was meant to be read, not staged) and rethinks most of the characters, including the main duo.

Strand puts thoughts into the mouths of Lorenzo and the Duke and strews the text with psychological insights that never would have occurred to de Musset. All told, the version running at the Shakespeare Theatre through March 6 is a hybrid, belonging as much to the modern playwright as to his predecessor.

De Musset was a great admirer of Shakespeare's, and Lorenzaccio has been compared to Hamlet because both feature young noblemen paralyzed by self-doubt. Lorenzo de Medici (his nickname, "Lorenzaccio" means "filthy Lorenzo") is Alessandro's cousin and only trusted friend.

The Duke rapes virgins, seduces wives, and murders all who oppose him. Lorenzo is caught between two codes of morality: a personal code that says you don't stab your friends in the back (or in the chest, for that matter) and the civic code that requires him to act in his country's best interest.

It's a fascinating conundrum, and the playwrights deliberately heighten the ambiguity. For instance, Lorenzo only acts when he finally has a personal motivation; his sister, Catherine, is in danger of becoming the Duke's next victim.

Director Michael Kahn sharpens the tension through clever casting. Lorenzo's Jeffrey Carlson is small and slight, with limbs like strands of spaghetti - perfect for a man who cultivates a reputation as a coward. Carlson exudes an aura of dampness, as if he were perpetually in a nervous sweat.

His movements are jerky and spasmodic, and he has an irritating giggle that makes him seem borderline unbalanced. Lorenzaccio would be a far different - and less interesting - play if Carlson's portrayal contained even a whiff of testosterone.

It makes for an effective contrast to Robert Cuccioli as Alessandro.

Slouching all over the stage, with his lower lip in a perennial pout, casually assuming the right to all available oxygen, Cuccioli is the very picture of unselfconscious virility. There is something touching, too, about the way Alessandro unquestioningly trusts the one man he shouldn't trust, the man who everyone tells him not to trust. It goes a long way toward explaining why women are drawn to this villain despite themselves.

The rest of the cast delivers uniformly fine performances, headed by Ted van Griethuysen as an aristocrat whose conscience won't let him resort to violence - and pays a terrible price. Costume designer Murell Horton's dresses are reminiscent of Florentine politics, somber of hue and intricately patterned.

In the end, Lorenzo's great sacrifice goes for naught. Though he aches to free his fellow citizens, they fail to revolt when the opportunity arises. In the end, they turn against their liberator.

Sound familiar?


What: Lorenzaccio by Alfred de Musset

Where: Shakespeare Theatre, 450 Seventh St. N.W., Washington

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 2 p.m., 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m., 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through March 6

Tickets: $23 to $68

Call: 877-487-8849 or visit www.shakespearetheatre. org

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