After 10 years in exile from Florence, Niccolo Machiavelli (Rudy Guerrero*) returns to his beloved home city, to perform his farce, "Mondragola" for the Florentine elite... but he gets entangled in far more than stage antics. Credit: Robbie Sweeny

It might come as a bit of a surprise to those familiar with Renaissance-era Niccolò Machiavelli that the new play running at Central Works in Berkeley bears the tagline “a comedy about Machiavelli.” 

A comedy? About the man who wrote The Prince, the infamous “handbook for tyrants”?  About the namesake of the word “Machiavellian” (cunning, ruthless and unscrupulous political scheming)?  

Mondragola extended through April 23. Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Ave. Tickets $15-$40; Thursdays are pay-what-you-can. Order online or call  510-558-1381.

Yes. Machiavelli, was also the most popular playwright in his day. In 1522, more than 50 years before Shakespeare hit the stage in London, comic plays performed in front of a live audience were relatively novel in Italy. Modeled on the rediscovered comedies of ancient Rome, new plays were being devised and popularized by clever writers like Machiavelli, who was steeped in the classics.

The title of the new play at Central Works is Mondragola (Mon-dra-GO-la), which is also the title of the most famous comedy written by Machiavelli. It’s a play within a play.  

Here’s some background — with modern comparisons — for those who haven’t studied Italian Renaissance literature.

Machiavelli was born in 1469 in Florence, Italy, which was the spiritual and geographic center of the Italian Renaissance, then at its height.  As a leading diplomat for the government of Florence, Machiavelli saw first-hand exactly how states, or “Princedoms,” were ruled.  Not with a spirit of “divine guidance,” as many so-called Princes would have their subjects believe, but rather through ruthless deception and cold, calculated manipulation.  

In Renaissance Italy, power politics looked a whole lot more like The Godfather and Game of Thrones than The West Wing or The American President. (That’s the one where President Michael Douglas falls in love with Annette Benning; does the right thing at every turn, in spite of the political risk; and ends up cheered on by thunderous applause as he triumphantly enters the House Chamber to deliver his State of the Union speech.) 

Or perhaps you’ve seen House of Cards, with an avowed Machiavellian (Kevin Spacey, no less), turning to the camera from time to time to directly share his real intentions with us, behind the façade of his public actions, all in an effort to secure his political power and security, the prime directive of a Prince, according to Machiavelli.  

Machiavelli’s play, Mondragola (Mon-dra-GO-la), is still performed today from time to time, usually in the version translated by well-known actor/playwright Wallace Shawn in 1998.  Mondragola often translated as The Mandrake Root — a phrase also rich with a dark history.

Steve Ortiz, as Luigi, presents a goblet of “special” wine to the Cardinal de Medici before the curtain goes up on Machiavelli’s play. Credit: Robbie Sweeny

The mandrake is a plant from the genus Mandragora found in regions of the Mediterranean, and long associated with hallucinogenic, narcotic, and other effects when ingested.  It’s also associated with fertility, and perhaps one of the oldest references to the “love plant,” goes all the way back to Jewish scriptures.  In the Book of Genesis, the sisters Leah and Rachel both conceive, allegedly, through contact with the mysterious plant.  

In later folk traditions, perhaps because the roots were thought to resemble a human form, the plant was said to scream when uprooted, even bringing death to anyone who plucks it incorrectly. (J.K. Rowling picked this up and ran with it in the Harry Potter books.)

Exactly where Machiavelli got the idea that the plant has what we might call the effect of an aphrodisiac, a drug that stimulates sexual desire, is anybody’s guess.  But then, it doesn’t actually have that effect in Machiavelli’s play; the aphrodisiac angle is all just a scam in Mondragola.  

In the Central Works play by Gary Graves, Machiavelli’s Mondragola is being performed for the first time, in 1522, at the Palazzo Rucellai in Florence. Graves described the play as “a comic elixir, one part history, one part pure fabrication, and a generous dose of farce”:  Machiavelli is struggling to get by as a humble playwright, long after being exiled from his hometown of Florence.  A lucky break comes when he is invited to present his new play for the Cardinal de Medici, the wealthiest man in Florence. It seems the cardinal has a fondness for comic plays. 

Machiavelli eagerly accepts the invitation to premiere his new play in front of an elite, highly influential audience. He hopes it might end his stultifying exile from Florence.  Little does Machiavelli know, the performance of his play is merely the bait to lure the cardinal into a trap, an assassination plot.  When Machiavelli realizes what’s afoot, he must choose:  is he with the conspirators, or against them?  Either way, he could see his head wind up on the chopping block.

Find out, of course, by seeing Mondragola at the Berkeley City Club, now extended through April 23.

Rudy Guerrero as Niccolo Machiavelli hopes to win a commission to write the history of Florence for the ruling Medici family, but is unaware that he is about to become ensnared in a political coup. Credit: Robbie Sweeny