Central Works does nothing but new plays developed collaboratively between the cast and creative team, most but not all of them written by company codirector Gary Graves. Every show is either a premiere or a revival of one of the group’s previous original plays. Its latest show, The Lion and the Fox, is a relative rarity—a sequel, or rather a prequel, to another Graves play from past seasons, Machiavelli’s The Prince. It’s not quite without precedent: In 2012 the company presented its first trilogy, Richard the First, the middle part of which was Graves’s 2003 play Lionheart.
I’d enjoyed Machiavelli’s The Prince when Central Works premiered it in 2009 (and apparently I wasn’t alone because the company revived it the following year) so I was curious to check out the prequel. The Prince portrayed a meeting between Machiavelli and the new Duke of Florence, with the long-exiled diplomat offering up his masterpiece of political science in hopes of getting a job.
The Lion and the Fox is another verbal fencing match between Machiavelli and a powerful man, but this time it’s much younger Niccolò meeting a man who exemplified a lot of the qualities that would later be known as “Machiavellian”: the ruthless marauding general Cesare Borgia, the son of the pope and commander of the papal armies. Formerly a cardinal himself, Borgia gave it up to run around Italy seizing various lands by force and treachery, pillaging under the aegis of the Holy See.
Graves’s play takes the form of several meetings between Machiavelli and Borgia over the years (actually over only one year, but it seems much longer), when Machiavelli is just a young emissary from the republic of Florence. He’s there to…well, it doesn’t really matter. Something about Florence owing Borgia some money for an arrangement they say he broke by his lieutenant marauding through their countryside. It’s all just a pretext to get these guys in the same room so that Machiavelli can quietly watch Borgia and so that Borgia can talk about what an unpredictable and cunning badass he is. Always underlying it all is the awareness that Borgia could kill Machiavelli at any time for any reason, or for no reason at all. Fortunately, he’s far more interested in having someone new to show off to, and by extension let Florence know he’s not to be messed with.
Deep-voiced and bearded, Lucas Hatton makes an imposing Borgia, intense and volatile, always pacing around with combustible energy. Benjamin Stowe’s Machiavelli is much more mild-mannered, smooth and unflappable, occasionally betraying a low-key hint of fear, or at least wariness, but more often listening as if only to be polite and tiring of Borgia’s boastfulness, however backed by deadly power and guile it may be.
Director Jan Zvaifler gives the play a pared-down staging in the round. There’s no set in the already elegant room at the Berkeley City Club where Central Works performs all its shows. The action—or rather the chatting—is subtly accentuated by Graves’s moody lights and Gregory Scharpen’s sounds of cannons, chants, shrieks and swords. Tammy Berlin decks the gents out in black leather for the conquering antihero and a flashy cape for the classy functionary.
Borgia is a compelling character—which of course is the whole point of the play, how he must have captured Machiavelli’s imagination—and the way he recounts his cunning exploits and casual atrocities is sometimes gripping, although we’re always aware that all the action has already happened elsewhere and it’s a pity we just missed it.
Calling it a verbal fencing match would be a little misleading, because all Machiavelli ever does is parry. Any philosophical debates are superficial (“Fortune is a strumpet” vs. “Fortune favors the bold”) and quickly shrugged off by the less powerful party. Machiavelli’s not a player so much as a messenger boy—and, in that same capacity, a spy—and he knows it. The best he can do is advise, both Borgia and the Florentine Council, and perhaps occasionally allow himself the pleasure of knowingly giving bad advice if he dares. Mostly he’s there to observe and to give Borgia someone to talk to.
This play shares with Graves’s Richard the First trilogy a tendency to get bogged down by expository dialogue about people we don’t know and never will—particularly toward the end, when it loses so much steam that by the time a major reversal of fortune arrives it doesn’t really seem like a big deal anymore. Or maybe Machiavelli’s sardonic distance has finally rubbed off on us. Score one for the quiet little guy.
Show #23 of 2014, attended March 9.