'Lorenzaccio':    Murder Most Medici

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 25, 2005; Page C01

He's an exotic sort of hero, this insolent young man who sulks and simpers and wisecracks like a patrician habitue of South Beach or SoHo. You wouldn't be surprised, in fact, if he smoked crystal meth and secretly wore ladies' underthings. Yet Jeffrey Carlson's decadent effeteness is never anachronistic in Michael Kahn's smart new staging of the 1834 "Lorenzaccio." To be sure, Carlson's androgynous take on double-dealing Lorenzo de Medici injects an extra dose of feline danger into Alfred de Musset's tapestry of political intrigue in 16th-century Florence.

Now, if the questions occurring to you at this moment are "Alfred de WHO?" and " Loren WHAT?" don't feel that you're a total theater boob. Although still widely read and performed in France, Musset -- a poet and contemporary of Victor Hugo -- is a stranger to most American audiences. Kahn and his Shakespeare Theatre are on a bit of a cultural mission here, seeking to expand the classical menu with the work of a writer who, as can be divined in "Lorenzaccio," was himself a huge fan of Shakespeare.

For this occasion, the first American production in memory, Kahn lays out an impressive spread, offering Musset a handsome welcome mat. John Strand's sleek adaptation puts a sprawling, wordy play -- Musset intended this "closet drama" for reading, not performing -- on a useful diet. Ming Cho Lee's modest, abstracted set, inspired in part by the layout of a Renaissance square, matches the text as a model of economy. And Murell Horton's costumes, rendered in both plush and austere shades, more than satisfy the period dictums for opulence and decorum.

The director also surrounds Carlson, indisputably the evening's star, with a most appealing cast. Musset's language, filtered through Strand's translation, is not close to the poetic dynamism of Shakespeare's. Still, Strand maintains a pleasingly conversational tone even if he occasionally forces some overly modern-sounding jocularity into the proceedings. In any event, the actors -- from Chandler Vinton's conflicted Countess Cibo to Aubrey Deeker's pure-in-spirit Tebaldeo to Ted van Griethuysen's lionhearted Philip Strozzi --  flourish. Shakespeare's constructions can be as much a burden as a gift to an actor, and here, less encumbered by the prose, many of the performers cohere more naturally to the contours of their characters.

Most of those contours follow the fault lines of deceit, duplicity and betrayal. "Lorenzaccio" is a civic tragedy, charting the cruel decline of a formerly free city-state now chafing under the autocratic rule of a preening puppet. Musset wrote the play at a time of deep political disenchantment in Paris, and the echoes of that disillusionment reverberate through "Lorenzaccio" and its ironic treatment of Florence's venality and corruption. When, for instance, the despised Florentine tyrant Alessandro de Medici (Robert Cuccioli) has his picture painted, the pose he strikes -- bare-chested, draped in heavy fabric, leaning on a classical pillar -- summons images of another time and another doomed empire.

Alessandro, cousin to Carlson's Lorenzo, has been installed on the throne of Florence by the reigning secular and religious power-mongers, Emperor Charles V and Pope Clement VII, a move that extinguishes a local republican tradition. (The visages of a king and a pontiff glare down menacingly from a giant mural over the stage.) As played by Cuccioli -- best known for a hyperventilating Broadway turn as the title character in the musical version of "Jekyll and Hyde" -- Duke Alessandro is athletic and lusty, a quarterback governed by his loins.

Alessandro knows that he's loathed by his people. He knows that in his presence everyone maintains the charade that he is a beneficent ruler, chiefly because they love survival even more than freedom. The enigmatic wild card is Lorenzo, who might ordinarily exist as a good-time sidekick, one of those dissolute rich kids at court who drown their purposeless lives in wine, women and madrigals. What lifts "Lorenzaccio" is Lorenzo's Hamlet-like metamorphosis from self-regard to both self-knowledge and self-sacrifice. As with "Hamlet," the crime against a loved one spurs a dawdler to action. In this case, it is Alessandro's designs on Lorenzo's spotless sister, Catherine (well-played by Marni Penning), that prompt Lorenzo to the project he's entertained only in fantasy, the elimination of Alessandro.

Carlson is made for haughty Lorenzo. He even walks with a sneer. In the Boy George musical "Taboo," his portrayal of Marilyn, a cross-dresser with a chip on his padded shoulder, lingers in memory. Some of that pouty effeminacy carries over to Lorenzo, and it lends the character the quality of something wild. Even the gawky mannerisms with which Carlson endows Lorenzo -- with his arms outstretched, he looks like a wounded baby pelican -- contribute to the sense that Lorenzo is not cut out naturally for the violent course he's set himself.

Kahn and Strand play off the idea that neither of the cousins can be easily pigeonholed. Alessandro is less than admirable but more than a bland evocation of evil. After a night of lovemaking, Vinton's countess pleads with him to loosen his hold on the city, and his response gives you an understanding of the vise in which he's caught. Even if he wanted to show more mercy, he tells the countess, he must do his tyrants' bidding. Lorenzo is not driven by any one pure motive, either. His decision to murder his cousin is prompted as much by the desire for public approbation as by concern for the commonweal. It's only after the deed is done -- and staged by Kahn with a shocking crispness -- that the truly tragic dimension of Lorenzo's nature comes to the fore. "How can this be greatness?" he asks, soaked in Alessandro's blood. The textures of Florentine morality, art and commerce are revealed in a variety of supporting roles, many carried off with style. The upstanding Strozzis, with van Griethuysen as the noble patriarch and Colleen Delany and Pedro Pascal as his grown children, offer a portrait of wholesome values under less than ideal political conditions. Deeker's work as the artist Tebaldeo is wondrously controlled; Michael Rudko is capably Machiavellian as Cardinal Cibo, and such Shakespeare veterans as David Sabin and Tana Hicken perform with their accustomed agility. Vinton's countess is her most accomplished work in a recent spate of prominent parts around town. Recounted by the Shakespeare Theatre with clarity and directness, Musset's story of a society cowed by and despairing over its political leadership seems an apt one to tell just now. Its bitter conclusion is designed as a final dagger to the spirit.

 "Lorenzaccio" may not climb the incandescent peaks or descend into the harrowing gullies of Shakespeare. But its stab in the heart of authority certainly speaks to our time, loud and clear. 

Lorenzaccio, by Alfred de Musset, adapted by John Strand. Directed by Michael Kahn. Sets, Ming Cho Lee; costumes, Murell Horton; lighting, Howell Binkley; composer, Scott Killian; fight choreographer, Brad Waller. With Bernard Burak Sheredy, David Sabin, Kate Kiley, Ralph Cosham, Floyd King, J. Fred Shiffman, John Livingstone Rolle. Approximately 2 hours 45 minutes. Through March 6 at Shakespeare Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW. Call 202-547-1122 or visit www.shakespearetheatre.org.

2005 The Washington Post Company