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Wear a mask long enough and it’ll leave marks. So learns Lorenzo de Medici, the dangerously puckish antihero of the Shakespeare Theatre’s latest outing, who conceals himself too long behind the mask of a wastrel when what he longs to be is a hero out of the sagas. And between them, Michael Kahn, Jeffrey Carlson, and John Strand make it seem a tragic lesson indeed.

Kahn’s the assured director, Carlson the sneering, clowning Machiavellian in the title role. Strand is the Washington-based playwright who’s adapted the text—a classic of the French Romantic repertoire, about a Medici debauchee’s murder of a Medici despot in 16th-century Florence, that’s produced in the States about as often as the York Mystery Plays. The piece is Lorenzaccio, originally an eight-hour-ish “closet drama” by Alfred de Musset, who despised the stage and meant his tale of intrigue and introspection to be read, not performed. The miracle is that it works at all.

More miraculous, then, that it works so well: Kahn’s production moves with the weight and the terrible momentum of some huge war machine, with as much style and spectacle as you’d expect in a Shakespeare Theatre production of a play set in Renaissance Italy, yet its characters exist on a recognizably human scale. It’s funny, too, when it needs to be, and wry—Strand’s translation has a way of framing the political disenchantment of an oppressed Florence (and of de Musset’s disillusioned, post-1830-revolution France) in phrases that’ll have a rueful resonance for audiences in an America ruled by red states. A tyrant’s bold articulation of his preemptive-war policy set off a little audience muttering on press night, but at the end of an expensive inauguration week, the biggest laugh came when David Sabin’s scandalized Giovanni Six-Pack of a silk-seller got huffy about the hard-partying aristocrats running his city into the ground: “Never mind that the people’s rights have been stolen and the republic has been trampled in the mud—we’ll just throw another masked ball.”

That’s a pretty apt summation of the situation when the curtain comes up on de Musset’s Florence, evoked by designer Ming Cho Lee with a sort of hard-edged opulence that seems precisely right. The city’s proud tradition of republican government is dust under the boots of the ruthless Alessandro de Medici (a swaggering Robert Cuccioli), installed as duke by the pope and the Holy Roman Emperor. Fear and licentiousness reign; scores of noble Florentine families have been exiled for daring to question Alessandro’s autocratic rule, and as many noblewomen as commoners number among the duke’s conquests. A few stalwarts remain, notably Ted van Griethuysen’s indomitably philosophic Philip Strozzi, but too many have chosen the path of the scheming Cardinal Cibo (a deliciously wicked Michael Rudko), who’s willing to make a pawn of his own brother’s wife (Chandler Vinton) as he jockeys for power. Too many more have cozied up to the dictator, choosing profit and the dubious protection of his fickle favor over the seemingly certain peril of resistance.

And there’s the despondent heart of de Musset’s play: People are pretty vile, he argues, and honest motives are in short supply. Between easy rhetoric and self-serving politicking, we get the rulers we deserve, and our outrage over their abuses is mere posturing if we’re not willing to back it up with action.

Carlson’s tormented Lorenzo is one of the few willing to act—but even he doesn’t know what drives him. Cousin and confidant to Alessandro, Lorenzo’s made himself the duke’s good-time sidekick, riding along with him on his nightly revels; he’s Alessandro’s cupbearer, his pander, his jester, so dissolute he can’t even hold a sword properly—Carlson squeezes laugh after loose, ironic laugh out of the picture—and he’s earned the contempt of Florentines both decent and corrupt. It’s all a pose, though, a role performed on the public stage toward a dark purpose: Lorenzo has courted Alessandro, it turns out, to “take…the hero’s role of Brutus and cut this Caesar down.”

In years of play-acting, though, the idealist youth who chose the part has lost sight of himself, and the evening’s pinnacle comes when Carlson’s nearly unhinged Lorenzo confesses as much to old Strozzi: “To capture my prey, I became as he…. Murder of the innocent, defilement of the pure, hope and goodness ground into sorrow—I was witness and partner to these acts.” He’s not sure anymore why he hates Alessandro; worse, he’s not sure the city deserves better. “I see men now for what they are, no longer what I wish them to be,” he confesses, and in Carlson’s anguished reading, the lines have the hollow ring heard in the voices of war correspondents and other poets of despair: “Human nature, Philip—I found her in the darkened alleyways, she lifted her skirts and pulled me down, and I exulted in it.” He follows through nonetheless, in a scene Kahn stages with such intimate horror that it plays like something out of Medea, and indeed de Musset’s Lorenzo becomes a sort of Brutus—a regicide who acts as much for personal glory as for the public good, a tyrant-killer unprepared to shepherd his country through the aftermath of his deed.

Strand and Kahn make the story all the richer by complicating a character who’s apparently a straightforward villain in de Musset’s original, and Cuccioli manages to show us a glimpse or two of the fear, as well as the ruthless ambition, behind Alessandro’s brutality. And Carlson’s superb leading performance is merely the most notable in a strong lot: Vinton does fine work as the Countess Cibo, who has a few conflicted motives of her own, and Aubrey Deeker makes a simple, honest painter seem a remarkably unsentimental character. His faith in the ultimate rightness of reason, of the ultimate triumph of the humane, stands in shining contrast to Lorenzo’s bleak worldliness—a welcome contrast, too, in a political epoch as gloomy as our own.CP