But in Shakespeare Theatre’s world premiere of a new translation and adaptation of French poet Alfred Musset’s masterpiece “Lorenzaccio,” the noble values of courage, honor and freedom serve as euphemisms for ruthless ambition and violent rebellion; they become a nation’s tragic flaw.
During Shakespeare Theatre’s production of “Lorenzaccio,” Philip Strozzi, patriarch of the Florentine nobility, poses a memorable thought, “When you overturn what is, what will grow in its place?”
Once revered for his knowledge and wisdom, Philip now stands alone, frustrated, aged and heartbroken, as the lone voice of reason amongst a nation corrupt with power and desire for blood and glory.
The production transports the audience to16th century Florence, which, once the home of a revered republic has fallen under the control of the well-connected, powerful, ambitious and very wealthy Medici family.
“Lorenzaccio” is the tragic tale of Lorenzo de Medici, cousin and beloved friend of the tyrannical and debauched Alessandro de Medici, Duke of Florence, who poses as the new “kingly power” of Florence.
The Florentines now live under the shadow of history: the glory that once was Florentine freedom and the overwhelming legacy of ancient Rome. Duke Alessandro is Caesar and the people eagerly await a Brutus to be their hero.
Musset’s “Lorenzaccio” was originally a critique of recent events in his own country, 19th century France. One French king was continually substituted for another despite popular rebellions attempting to overthrow the tyrannical government and return France to its days as a republic. For the French citizens in 1830 — as well as Lorenzaccio’s Florentines — hopes for change and revolution melted in the midst of a tragically cruel reality: rulers and rebellions came and went, but the more things changed, the more they remained the same.
But despite this painful truth, some Florentines went to great lengths to preserve Florence’s honor and gain ultimate glory. No one sacrificed more to achieve these goals than Lorenzo de Medici, played by Jeffery Carlson. Lorenzo, nicknamed Lorenzaccio (which translates to “dirty Lorenzo”) by the Florentines, is despised for his cowardice, eccentricity, moral irreverence and his close friendship with his cousin, the cruel and abusive Duke of Florence.
Jeffery Carlson, making his Shakespeare Theatre debut, is captivating as he emotionally and physically embodies Lorenzo’s moral crisis as he plots to betray his patron. His limbs often twitch or flutter as though he is at once overcome and strangely delighted in the twisted corruption he and his cousin share, as they both seem to lie outside the boundaries of conventional morality.
At other times, his hyperactivity reveals the deep vengeful pain gnawing at his heart, as each word he utters seems a painful confession of the disgust he feels for the Duke, for himself and for the cowardice of all humanity.
Though Carlson’s portrayal of Lorenzo’s effeminate eccentricity and flamboyance is occasionally taken to the point of painful and whiny annoyance, he reveals the poet and dreamer behind a soul conflicted about his desire for fame and glory.
Robert Cuccioli as Alessandro de Medici achieves the impossible, making the distasteful and murderously ambitious Duke seem human as he yearns for companionship, love and affection, especially from his beloved Lorenzo. Cuccioli brings vulnerability and humanizes Alessandro despite the inhumanity of his actions.
The rest of the cast offers powerful portrayals as well. Pedro Pascal delivers a fiery performance as Philip Strozzi’s son Piero, whose need to preserve the honor of his family and his nation morph into a sick desire for vengeance and power.
Ted van Griethusysen is flawless as Philip Strozzi. He reveals the heartache of a man standing alone, struggling to fight the current of rebellion plaguing Florence and poisoning his son and daughter against his vision for peace.
Other strong performances include Chandler Vinton as Countess Cibo, adulterous wife of a Florentine Count, and Michael Rudko as Cardinal Cibo, rising to become the brains behind the corruption that stains the city.
Shakespeare Theater’s “Lorenzaccio” is the product of Musset’s play newly translated and adapted by local playwright John Strand, who has given more life and complexity to Musset’s original characters.
The play asks of them if history is really changed by patriots willing to sacrifice their life to preserve honor of their country. Or, cruelly enough, is history like it was in 16th century Florence, 19th century France and 21st century Washington, D.C. — just politics as usual?