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Lions and Foxes:
The Life of Lucrezia Borgia

Renaissance Italy, is probably history's prime example of how humankind's greatest talents and worst instinct can flourish at one time and in one place. As the names of Leonardo da Vinci and Titian have become synonymous with creative genius, so the name of the Borgia family who were their early patrons have endured as symbols of evil and corruption. Now, actress and playwright, Quiche Kemble, with the help of extensive research in the Belmont Library/Enrico Fermi Cultural Center in the Bronx, has given us a new picture of the infamous Borgias.

The result is a 5-character play focusing on the life of Lucrezia Borgia between 1497, when she was 18 years old, pregnant and about to be married for the third time to her death at age 39 (a not so unusually young age for the period). And guess what? This Lucrezia, while something of a licentious silly goose apparently none the worse for years of incestuous relations with her brother Cesare and her father (Pope Alexander VI), emerges as a gifted and right-minded ruler, and heroic fighter for woman's right to free will. A far cry from Donizetti's opera based on the same character!

While Lucrezia is cast in a heroic mold, brother Cesare ably portrayed by Dean Storm Bradshaw is still a pretty odious-- (and, yes, murderous)-- character, as is the never-seen Pope. As the play opens, the Pope is finagling to have Lucrezia declared a virgin so that her current marriage can be annulled and a more advantageous one entered into with Alfonso of Aragon. (Trey Burvant). Cesare, the illegitimate son always eager to curry dad's favor, is all for this provided he can continue to indulge his unbrotherly lust. If you think our current fascination with the so-called last taboo, incest, has gotten a bit out of hand, wait until you see Cesare lasciviously fondling his very pregnant sister. As already mentioned Lucrezia does not seem particularly traumatized by either her forced marriages or familial liaisons, until she gives birth that is and until she falls in love with the hapless Alfonso.

Having her baby taken away from her fires up her maternal instinct and her effort to be reunited with that child dominates the play's two hour-long, thirteen-year time span. Being forcefully separated from Alfonso, leads her to sublimate her unhappiness and become an effective ruler of the province (Spoleto) to which the men in her family have exiled her. As much as Ms. Kemble's play differs from Donizetto's opera, it is operatic in its litany of tragedies--the separation from the first child, the separation first geographically and eventually by virtue of Cesare's dagger, yet another forced marriage.

It is this last marriage that gives Ms. Kemble's play its most interesting character interaction and performance. From the minute we meet this fifth husband, the warrior Duke of Ferrara (Kevin Keaveney), he commands the tiny 7th floor Chelsea Arts stage. When we meet him he is a man of his time to whom a wife's duty is to bear heirs and, if need be, grant sexual favors to a brother-in-law to secure political advantage. As time passes he evolves as a respectful and loving husband, a transformation that is more believable than Lucrezia's change from promiscuous air head to proud freedom fighter. In the end, Mr. Keaveney's strong performance pulls Lucrezia's character closer to his level and gives both actors some of the play's fine moments together.

In order to bring in another important Renaissance player, Machiavelli (Rob Miller), as the narrator, Ms. Kemble has admittedly rearranged her historic time line. While he did not become Cesare Borgia's advisor until about the time Lucrezia was sent to Ferrara, he is on scene throughout. This use of the famous philosopher works to the play's advantage, as does Rob Miller's wry interpretation of the role. It is to Machievelli's most famous work, The Prince which was based on Cesare Borgia, that the play owes its title. In it he wrote that a head of state must be like a fox (to avoid traps) and a lion (to frighten off the wolves). The fifth cast member, Chris Andersson, adds a needed touch of levity to this grim slice of history as Lucrezia's gossipy hair dresser Vecelio

.Director Rich Stone and the rest of the production staff do the best they can with an obviously bare bones budget. Given this it would be curmudgeonly to carp about the sets and costumes and ersatz tapestries. It is as just such a Spartan production that Lion and Foxes might best reach a larger audience. It seems made for small regional or campus theaters (especially those with women's studies departments). ©right April 1997, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.

Written by and starring Quiche Kemble
Directed by Rich Stone
Theatre at Chelsea Arts 134 W. 26th St. (7 fl.), St. (212) 924-6862.
4/11-5/18 (opening 4/13)

The American Renaissance Theatre of Dramatic Arts which produced
this play accepts TDF vouchers and offers half-price ($10) tkts for students
and seniors on Wednesday and Thursday nights

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