The Painter, the Sculptor and the Politician
By Geary Danihy
Here’s the pitch. We get Machiavelli, da Vinci and Michelangelo together – I mean, we’re talking about Renaissance biggies, here; class acts -- and have them argue about art, politics and religion. You know -- important stuff. We’ll throw in lots of great costumes, some nifty sets and dramatic lighting, project all sorts of boffo art across the stage – we’re talkin’ “The Last Supper” here, people – give the guys some great in-jokes for the artsy-fartsy folks with grad degrees, get a couple of zingers in about homosexuality, and back it all up with that tinkly, Masterpiece Theater-like music that lets everyone know it’s “intellectual.” It can’t miss!
Well, it can.
It’s not that “Divine Rivalry,” a new play by Michael Kramer that just opened at the Hartford Stage, doesn’t have many diverting moments. It’s simply that director Michael Wilson and his design team have chosen to treat the material as if they’re dealing with something on the level of “A Man For All Seasons” (the production is subtitled “The greatest unknown event of the Renaissance”) when, in fact, as a dramatist Kramer, who is a political journalist by trade, has more in common with Neil Simon than Robert Bolt.
The play is set in the early sixteenth century in the Republic of Florence, a city better know for its artists than its soldiers. It is this lack of military enthusiasm that bothers Niccolò Machiavelli (Scott Parkinson), Florence’s second chancellor, who fears that the city will fall to its rivals if it must rely on mercenaries for its defense. Machiavelli voices his concern to Piero Soderini (Simon Jones), the republic’s “gonfaloniere.” When Soderini asks what is to be done, Machiavelli hatches a plan: a competition between arch rivals Leonardo da Vinci (Peter Strauss) and Michelangelo Buonarroti (Aaron Krohn) to paint frescoes celebrating Florence’s former military victories (they were few and far between) thus stirring the military ardor of the city’s citizenry. Given reluctant approval for this somewhat dubious plan, Machiavelli sets about wheedling and cajoling the two artists into participating.
Given Machiavelli’s rep as a master of political manipulation, the plot he hatches seems infantile at best. Are we really supposed to believe that the art-loving Florentians are going to enlist in droves after viewing these frescoes? Yes, da Vinci and Michelangelo are powerful artists, but come on!
Asked to accept this premise, the audience is then treated to some rather slow-moving set-pieces that have Machiavelli doing deals with the two artists while placating -- and lying to – his superior. In fact, the play really doesn’t get off the ground until the two masters are finally allowed to confront each other in a verbal duel that has da Vinci caustically critiquing Michelangelo’s statue of David and Michelangelo returning the compliment by savagely dissecting da Vinci’s “Last Supper.” While it lasts it’s great stuff.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t last long enough. As Machiavelli’s plot unravels, so too does whatever dramatic tension Kramer has been able to generate, leading to an inconclusive climax and a denouement filled with a lot of nudge-nudge, wink-wink dialogue wrapped up with a pink bow of treacly reconciliation.
Under Wilson’s direction, the acting is a bit uneven. Parkinson plays Machiavelli (playnotes describe the second chancellor as “nefarious”) as if he’s seen one too many “Pinky and the Brain” cartoons – his machinating mind is just a bit too manifest. As Soderini notes near the end of the play, he’s just not very…Machiavellian.
Jones is given the least to work with, but he soldiers on in an avuncular manner, often asked to deliver a series of one-word lines to move the conversation along in a somewhat Marx Brothers’ fashion (these scenes are even blocked by Wilson in the style of farce). Of the four on stage, Strauss and Krohn come off the best…and most believable, especially in the aforementioned confrontation scenes, however they fall prey – as do Parkinson and Jones -- to delivering lines in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek manner, as if telling the audience that yes, we are playing Renaissance characters, but we’re modern folks who know how all of this ended up and what place our characters have in history.
All in all, “Divine Rivalry” is a pleasant enough two hours in the theater as long as one doesn’t sit down expecting to be overwhelmed by titanic forces or moved by momentous events. Wilson and company seemed to have been overly impressed by the subject matter, missing the possibility that the whole affair could have been played for laughs.
“Divine Rivalry” runs through Sunday, March 20. For tickets or more information call 860-527-5151 or go to www.hartfordstage.org.