Power, politics & poison in the wickedly funny, sexy, irreverent Bella Donna

Françoise Balthazar, Paul Hopkins & Chelsea Russell. Photo by Tanja-Tiziana.

 

The Bella Donna Artists Collective opened a new, revised production of David Copelin’s Bella Donna, directed by Anita La Selva, to a sold out house at the Tarragon Theatre Extraspace last night. Examining the political intrigue during the latter part of Lucrezia Borgia’s life through a 21st century lens, the wicked funny, sexy and irreverent script features all the salacious intrigue and backroom power plays one would expect—focusing on how she, and other women of the day, wielded political and sexual power despite social, legal and religious limitations.

Like her father Rodrigo (Pope Alexander VI) before her, Lucrezia (Françoise Balthazar) is the subject of grudging select fear and respect, as well as derision and vicious gossip. She’s onto her third husband, Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrera (Paul Hopkins), who has taken his ward and goddaughter Contessa Angela Di Ghilini (Chelsea Russell) as his mistress. As with all of her marriages, this union was arranged by her father for political gain—in this case, d’Este’s army—and Lucrezia is aware of, and disinterested in, her husband’s extramarital dalliances.

Dewey Stewart & Françoise Balthazar. Set & costume design by Jan Venus. Lighting design by Waleed Ansari. Photo by Rene Stakenborg. 

When Alfonso receives word from Rome that Pope Julius II has excommunicated them, and by association all of Ferrera, over allegations of immoral and criminal acts (see rumours about Lucrezia), the house is thrown into a tizzy, prompting Lucrezia to travel to Rome to try to reverse the decision. It is there that she meets Giovanni (Dewey Stewart), a handsome young captain in the Pope’s elite guard. Both in disguise for a masked ball when they meet, Giovanni—who loathes the Borgias, out of duty to the current Pope and based on rumour—doesn’t believe she is who she says she is and the two embark on an affair. We also meet Lucrezia’s friend and confidante Sister Bibiana (Martha Chaves), who acts as an informant for Lucrezia and Alfonso.

Giovanni, on the heels of Lucrezia after she slips away from Rome, is captured and beaten by Alfonso’s henchman Carlo (Michael Giordano); Alfonso has learned of Lucrezia’s tryst with the young captain, and forces her to choose between throat slitting or poison for his execution. An expert with poison and antidotes, she chooses the latter, a decision that offers Giovanni not only the opportunity to live another day, but to meet the lovely young Angela. Like Giovanni, Angela’s derision of Lucrezia melts when she gets to actually know her—and she gets a quick tutorial on Lucrezia’s signature poison, the titular belladonna (deadly nightshade), mixed with snake venom, from Sister Bibiana.

Of course, since we’re talking about the Borgias and the cut-throat politics of that time and place, someone does die and there’s a question about the lineage of someone else—and you’ll have to go see for yourself to find out who. Death, sex, alliances and even devotion to the Catholic Church all hinge on expediency, convenience and political advantage; vengeance is swift and sure, and life such as it is carries on in spite of it all.  Oh—and there’s puppets!

Chelsea Russell & Dewey Stewart. Set & costume design by Jan Venus. Lighting design by Waleed Ansari. Photo by Rene Stakenborg. 

Balthazar gives a stellar performance as the sultry, cunning Lucrezia—a role that seems tailor-made for her, as it showcases her compelling presence and vocal strength. Although technically lower in rank than her husband, Lucrezia is Alfonso’s match in every way: politically savvy, highly intelligent and possessing of an unabashed sexual appetite. Where the two diverge is apparent in Alfonso’s pompous, cruel sense of entitlement, which Hopkins executes with charming yet vicious precision.

Russell is highly entertaining as the bored little rich girl Angela, whose shade-casting ways turn to respect when she actually gets to know Lucrezia; also shouts to her for the puppet show, a hilariously irreverent Punch and Judy-like faceoff between Pope Alexander VI and Pope Julius II (design and construction by Jan Venus). Stewart is a delight as the brash, lusty Giovanni; a one-time true believer of Lucrezia’s rumoured unsavoury reputation, he too becomes a convert when he gets to know her, both biblically and otherwise. Chaves is a treat as the impish, wily Sister Bibiana; like Lucrezia, there’s more than meets the eye to this little nun—and you don’t want to get on the wrong side of those expert snake-handling hands. And Giordano’s strong, mostly silent henchman Carlo adds a gangland-flavoured comic edge.

Poison is often dismissed, mainly by men, as a “woman’s weapon.” But as we see from Sister Bibiana’s chemistry lesson and Lucrezia Borgia’s mastery of it—it involves science, skill and subtlety. And while the use of a plant to kill is perhaps a more velvet glove approach compared to the brute force of cold steel, it gets the job done. After all, one must use what weapons one has at one’s disposal. Underestimate the power of such weapons, and those who wield them, at your peril. Misunderstood, maligned and underestimated, Lucrezia Borgia is a survivor turned thriver, evolving from political bargaining chip to political force in her own right. Just don’t tell the men that.

Bella Donna continues in the Tarragon Theatre Extraspace until June 1; performances run Tues-Sat at 8 pm, with matinées on Sundays at 2:30 pm. Get advance tickets online or at the door (PWYC rush tickets available on Tuesdays and Sundays).