Arts & Events

Two Theater Reviews: 'The Lion & the Fox,' Central Works at the Berkeley City Club; 'A Maze,' Just Theater at Ashby Stage

By Ken Bullock
Friday March 07, 2014 - 01:46:00 PM

—Almost five years ago, Central Works staged 'Machiavelli's The Prince,' a two-hander with good performances by Richard Frederick and
Michael Navarra as the famed political writer of the Renaissance and Lorenzo II, Duke of Florence, the ruler to whom Machiavelli's most famous screed was dedicated. 

In a note to the program of their new play, 'The Lion and the Fox,' playwright and Central Works company co-director Gary Graves identifies this dramatization of the meetings between Machiavelli, Secretary to the Florentine Republic, and Duke Cesare Borgia, the tyrant whose schemings are much cited in 'The Prince,' as the prequel to the play produced first. 

In fact, Graves explains both were originally supposed to be one play, two actors playing the three roles—but instead emerged one at a time as a kind of diptych. 

'The Lion and the Fox' is another two-character chamber play, again with good work by Benjamin Stowe as Machiavelli and Lucas Hatton as Cesare—this time directed with distinction by company co-director Jan Zvaifler. (Graves directed the first play.) It's a richer experience, reflecting more of Machiavelli's own breadth and range. (Besides 'The Prince,' he wrote 'The History of Florence;' 'Discourses on Livy,' concerning the government of republics; two great comic plays, many letters, verse and fiction, as well as serving as diplomat and domestic officer for Florence, for which he raised the first citizen's militia.) It's a more enigmatic play, as the audience questions whether Machiavelli is falling under the eccentric, charismatic spell of "Duke Valentine," or who is playing cat-and-mouse with whom ... 

Borgia seems to be a kind of playboy on the shifting fields of power in 16th century Italy, military commander for the pope, his father—is he just drifting along, or intuitively reacting to the mercurial conditions and his own corresponding temperament? Or does he have a plan? 

It all culminates in the Adriatic city of Sinigaglia: "Going to Sinigaglia ÿou have the mountains on your right,/very close to the sea in some places,/nowhere two miles away./Sinigaglia city stands about a bow-shot from the foot of the mountains/less than a mile from the shore./A little stream runs by it/wetting the walls towards Fano." (Machiavelli's own account, as translated into verse by the great British poet Basil Bunting, "How Duke Valentine Contrived") 

The claustrophobia of appropriated palaces, the narrow streets of little city-states, of the threat of arrest and torture in the midst of what seems like hospitality ... 'The Lion and the Prince' capitalizes on the labyrinthine journeys Machiavelli makes between captured various lairs Borgia is holed up in and reporting to the Florentine Council; his own speculations, possibly shifting loyalties and second-guessing sometimes seems to play across his face, otherwise is concealed in deadpan, while Cesare may be screening off his thoughts with endless talking, or is it a display of bravado, seeming dilettantism, oblivious to the turmoil outside his luxurious dens. 

"As soon as the news got about the malcontents took heart/throughout the Duke's territory ... Meanwhile they sent to Florence for a second time/ ... but the Florentines/loathed/both the Vitelli and Orsino for various reasons/and sent Niccolo Machiavelli to the Duke instead/to offer help ... /he had to negotiate for all he was worth/(and he was a first rate humbug)." 

Graves' play has a somewhat different sense to it, a different idea of the intrigue than seems the case from Machiavelli's account, one which makes it a little more mysterious—maybe a bit more theatrical in the sense of plotting the story. 

Besides the ensemble of two and the director, the designers—lights by Graves, sound by Gregory Scharpen, costumes by Tammy Berlin—have fleshed out this problematic drama that has wry humorous touches in the relationship between two unlike characters—the aristocratic and epicurean despot, the frugal republican genius ... It's a curious and fascinating confrontation. 

Thursdays through Saturdays at 8, Sundays at 5 through March 30 at the Berkeley City Club, 2515 Durant (between Ellsworth and Dana). $28 advance, sliding scale of $28-$15 at the door, Thursdays pay-what-you-can. 558-1381; 


—Just Theater's production of Rob Handel's 'A Maze' is in its last weekend, presented by Shotgun Players at Ashby Stage after a successful earlier run at Live Oak Theater. 


The show's garnered critical and audience praise, much of it due to the well thought-out casting (Lasse Christiansen, Janis Delucia, Carl Holvick-Thomas, Frannie Morrison, Sarah Moser, Harold Pierce, Lauren Spencer, Clive Worsley), direction (Molly Aaronson-Gelb), overall production (Jonathan Spector, producer) and design (Martin Flynn, set; Devon LaBell, props; Michael Palumbo, lights; Teddy Hulsker, sound; Ashley Rogers, costumes). 

The play follows three seemingly unrelated stories—a teenager who has escaped imprisonment for years by an abductor plotting out her own career as a media figure, an unlikely friendship that develops in a rehab center between a rock songwriter-performer and a nerdy draftsman of endless graphic novels, and a fantasy story about a ruler building a maze to protect (and wall in) his consort and their child ... 

The three strands begin to meet halfway through; their interrelationship seems to grow plain, though there are vague or omitted details that might clarify the stories in light of the seriousness of the purpose of the playwright, trying to question or examine the making of art, of stories—the fictive, how it's made and where it comes from—and how all this affects our lives ... 

The questions that come more and more—though never completely—into focus seem to aim at irony, but—typical of storytelling that relies on parallel lines finally intersecting in recognition—what seems to criticize melodrama and the facile imitation of life in art or vice versa—itself becomes something of a melodrama, too close to being a vehicle for a kind of insouciant moralizing than that which follows its premises to a conclusion worked out as it goes along the way, 

'A Maze' raises serious questions and is produced with high production values—and that rare commodity, charm—but becomes sidetracked in its own machinations, not quite artistic enough to adequately question Whither Art—and why ... 

Tonight and Saturday at 8, Sunday at 4, Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby (across from Ashby BART), $20-$25.