- The Washington Times - Monday, January 24, 2005

“Lorenzaccio” is a play in which the most interesting things tend to occur offstage. Alfred de Musset’s 1833 romantic drama about politics, the Medici clan and the price of freedom is given a topical adaptation and translation by local playwright John Strand as well as a lush production at the Shakespeare Theatre under the direction of Michael Kahn.

Somehow, you get the impression that the back story is considerably more intriguing than what appears before the audience.

De Musset wrote the play as a way of tussling with his on-again, off-again affair with the cross-dressing writer of bodice-rippers, George Sand. The tempestuous romance did not last — no surprise there — but Miss Sand did provide her love-croissant with a smidge of inspiration. She presented him with her playlet about Lorenzo de Medici and suggested he use it for his own dramatic work.

The romantic poet poured body and soul into the character of Lorenzo de Medici, who, not coincidentally, also was a penner of verse and a fellow inclined to broody pining for his beloved.

Lorenzo (Jeffrey Carlson) may have a heart for rhyming, but his head is filled with murderous thoughts. He cozies up to his decadent cousin, Alessandro de Medici (Robert Cuccioli), duke of Florence in the mid-16th century, so he can eventually assassinate him, thus freeing Florence from tyranny and re-establishing the republic.

“Lorenzaccio” was never meant to be staged. De Musset’s ego was stomped on by critical and audience reception to his early works. Instead, he conceived plays such as “Lorenzaccio” to be considered “armchair theater,” read as literature and not restrained by the disciplines of classical drama.

It was, however, a big hit for the actress Sarah Bernhardt, who adapted the play in 1896, changing Lorenzo into Lorenza and creating for herself a meaty “breeches role,” although the original play was reduced to melodrama. De Musset’s “Lorenzaccio” came into its own in the 20th century, inspiring many European productions, operas, and films.

What a daunting task to figure out how to stage something de Musset deemed unstageable, a play stricken with intellectual and philosophical discourse that not only carries a strident political message, but also contains a droopy, lovesick main character who suddenly becomes a hero to his people.

Mr. Strand attempts to stitch the disparate elements together with a translation/adaptation that’s mostly lively and contemporary in feel. The plain speaking works best with the minor characters, such as the silk merchant Paolo (a delightful David Sabin), whose windy diatribes about the state of Florence prompts his fed-up wife (Kate Kiley) to moan, “Are you using the architecture metaphor again?”

The play remains rather a mess, sprawling and at odds with itself. Highly colored scenes of sexual congress are interspersed with lugubrious speeches about the nature of man, freedom and the corrupting influence of the Vatican.

One character, Tebaldeo (Aubrey Deeker), exists for the sole purpose of strolling onstage, paintbrush in hand, to discuss the soul of the artist and other aesthetic matters with Lorenzaccio and Alessandro.

The female characters are, according to Mr. Strand, an improvement over de Musset’s apparently one-dimensional — and some might say spiteful — depictions.

Not much, though. Most of the women — married, virgins, what have you — throw their skirts over their heads at the mere mention of Alessando’s name.

The main problem is the character of Lorenzaccio, who, with his teeter-tottering between moody despair and idealistic action, has been compared to Hamlet. Make that “Spam-let.”

Mr. Cuccioli gives us a taste of the irresistible charisma of the 16th-century playboy, but he tends to fall short in the scenes calling for dramatic weight.

“Lorenzaccio” is a handsome production, from Ming Cho Lee’s porticoed set exalting the great art and architecture of Florence to Murell Horton’s ornate costumes featuring yards of lustrous patterned brocade. Yet, window dressing can’t obscure the fact that de Musset’s play is fraught with warring ideas that try to state everything but wind up saying nothing.

**

WHAT: “Lorenzaccio” by Alfred de Musset, translated and adapted by John Strand

WHERE: The Shakespeare Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through March 6.

TICKETS: $12.75 to $68

PHONE: 202/547-1122

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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