It's quite a trick to have your name endure as an adjective nearly five centuries after your death, but Niccolo Machiavelli has pulled it off. And what an adjective it is: Machiavellian, six syllables of manipulation, heartlessness, and greedy hunger for power. Oh, and shameless fun, from a certain point of view that the latest offering from In the Basement Productions captures with no shortage of good-natured, black-hearted humor.
Machiavelli might have held all the cards when it came to advising princes on matters of obtaining and retaining power, but as a dramatist, it turns out he helped lay the footstones upon which would tread the writers of the American sitcom. His characters plot and scheme, all right, but they are ridiculous in doing so, and their goal isn't to conquer a land or subvert a kingdom: It is to get a guy named Callimaco laid.
It's clear from the start that director Christopher O. Kidder has instructed his cast to play things for laughs. Dave Gangler's Callimaco emerges as a lascivious ham who has the hots for a rich man's wife. Gangler has a zippy charm, and his work in this show lends new meaning to the notion of a cocky performance--as the amorously turbocharged Callimaco admits, "I touch myself too much."
Gangler's primary accomplice is Kristin Richardson's Liguria, a strychnine strumpet with absolutely no morality who hatches insane schemes for fun and profit. Richardson gives a smartly straightforward performance, and her terrific comedic timing provides a malicious sparkle that goes a long way toward holding things together.
The 4th Street Theater is tiny, and this production does a nice job of working within it. Jordan Estes's compact set reduces Florence to a few stylized stations, and his combination of crucifixes with the oversized silhouette of a Florentine mask is a nice nod to history, both spiritual and profane. In the same vein, Sarah French's costume designs are at least one cut above what one often sees on the local small stage. Richardson's costume, in particular, is all belts and boots and reds and blacks, and looks great while conveying Liguria's mercenary spirit.
The sense of licentiousness and lust that runs throughout the production could have gotten quite tedious--there are few things less entertaining than a production that insists we be scandalized by its reckless abandon--but this show generally locates the right tone. There might be an innuendo or double entendre too many, but the liberties taken with the script are appealingly benign. For example, when soon-to-be-cuckold Messer Nicia, played by Troy Stolp, is instructed to get a urine sample from his wife, he comes back with a giant glass jar filled with a couple of gallons of piss. Callimaco subsequently opens it and, in an offhand gesture, perfumes himself with it. Clearly we are not being asked to take things too seriously.
Ryan Grimes's Frate Timoteo, more a man of the coin than of the cloth, provides the only note of seriousness, with a sort of wincing acknowledgment of the awful hypocrisy to which he contributes. Such regret is not displayed by the object of Callimaco's affections. When Lucrezia, played by Annie Scott, finally gets wind of what's going on around her, Scott shows us her thought process with silent deftness: outraged, disgusted, neutral, open to possibility, then ripe for a good shag.
This is a small-theater experience, not without flaws. The musical interludes, for instance, while executed gamely, are below par. And opening night was not without its moments that got away. Overall, though, In the Basement has put together a likable take on a very old sex farce. It's a well-directed showcase for nearly every performer's particular sort of comedic charisma, and it rushes headlong toward the most happily cynical ending in recent memory.