It’s 1522, and Niccolo Machiavelli, author of The Prince — the infamous “handbook for tyrants” — has returned to perform his silly comedy Mondragola for the Cardinal de’ Medici. Credit: Robbie Sweeny

Central Works’ 70th world premiere production, Mondragola, is a comedic gem. It’s a winning combination of lighthearted farce, historical references and a satirical jab at the relationship between playwrights and actors. In a little more than one hour, and with directorial prowess by Central Works’ co-director, Jan Zvaifler, Mondragola provides a well-written, amusing entertainment with a clever premise, enhanced by sophisticated staging and uniformly smart and expressive acting. 

Mondragola, Central Works at the Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Ave., through April 16

Frequent author and Central Works co-director, the talented Gary Graves, transports the audience to Florence in 1522, where we view the behind-the-scenes political and societal chicaneries after the fall of the Florentine city-state and the republic.

The engaging trio of Zenobia (Monique Crawford), Battista (Edwin Jacobs) and Luigi (Steve Ortiz) are planning to assassinate the Cardinal of Florence and bring back the republic. For the deed, they choose the venue of a private soirée where a farcical sex comedy is to be performed.

Niccolo Machiavelli (Rudy Guerrero) instructs Luigi (Steve Ortiz) in the basics of acting in Mondragola. Credit: Robbie Sweeny

And who is the author of this risqué amusement? None other than the now older, poor, exiled author of The Prince (Il Principe), Niccolo Machiavelli (1469 –1527). Yes, and this part is true, the notorious former author, diplomat, philosopher, and historian Machiavelli wrote several popular plays, including La Mondragola (or, The Mandrake Root), to eke out a living while trying to return to the good graces of the 15th century Medici Court.

Ignorant of the assassins’ secret plans, Machiavelli (Rudy Guerrero) is highly focused on making his play successful, hoping it will lead to more significant opportunities. On the day of the performance, the assassins stand in for the cast members. Their cavalier attitude toward rehearsing, learning their lines and reciting them precisely as written frustrates and bedevils Machiavelli, as it amuses the audience. You will have to see Mondragola to learn the outcome for Machiavelli, the assassins, and the republic.

What I love about Central Works is that it only produces world premieres. It presents spanking new works by outstanding playwrights. Every show is a surprise — original, fresh and first seen here in Berkeley — not something that ran in New York several years ago.

Battista (Edwin Jacobs) and Zenobia (Monique Crawford) agree to perform in Niccolo Machiavelli’s comedy; but what are their real motives? Credit: Robbie Sweeney

Mondragola runs through April 23, on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights at the Berkeley City Club, that magnificent Julia Morgan-designed building at 2315 Durant Ave. Mondragola is one of five plays written by Gary Graves inspired by the life of Niccolo Machiavelli. Central Works produced Machiavelli’s The Prince in 2009 and again in 2010. Mondragola has one act and lasts 65 minutes without an intermission.

The theater only seats about 50 people, so get your tickets early. Fridays through Saturday, advance tickets are $35-$40, and all remaining tickets are available on a sliding scale at noon on the day of the show, $15-$40. Pay what you can on Thursdays. For information, extended dates, and tickets, visit Central Works’ website.

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Emily S. Mendel

Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...