Reviewed by Will Stackman
When London's Almeida Theatre brought Jean Racine's "obscure Britannicus", a cautionary historical drama written to admonish Louis XIV, to the BAC in New York in 1999, with Dame Diana Rigg as the power behind the throne, that production was overshown by the author's better known "Phedre," with Rigg in the title role. Brief note was made of the play's possible contemporary relevance, but the dramatist's underlying instincts for intense personal conflict -- the action observes the venerable unities -- remained its primary virtue, even in discrete modern dress.
At the ART this month, outgoing Artistic Director Robert Woodruff using a prose translation by British poet C.H.Sisson -- Almeida performed in traditional rhymed couplets -- was more aggressively modern. The play's central character, the infamous emperor Nero, played by New Yorker Alfredo Narciso, becomes a wannabe rock star who also races motorcycles, dwelling in a messy den in the shadows extreme stage left. Agrippina (the younger), Nero's manipulative mother gets the diva treatment from OBIE winner Joan MacIntosh. She's shacked up extreme stage right in an a cramped bedroom with Nero's tutor. The title character, Nero's half-brother Britannicus, played by Emerson and Juilliard grad Kevin O'Donnell, and his fiance, Junia, the last descendant of Augustus played by Merritt Janson are the doomed pair caught up in Agrippina's dynastic intrigue. Junia's role as the pawn between Nero and his step half-brother is far more interesting and better explored while O'Donnell plays his completely naively.
Lurking around the edges is menacing John Sierros as Burrhus, a Praetorian commander chosen by Agrippina as one of Nero's chief advisers. Most of the main characters interact with devious Narcissus, played by David Wilson Barnes. He's got a thing going with Albina, Agrippina's confident played by Adrianne Krstansky, starting with the two having a quickie before the play actually begins. Pallas, the tutor who's only mentioned in Racine's text, is played mutely by Douglas Cochrane as Agrippina's bedmate. Octavia, Britannicus' sister, who's married to Nero and also only mentioned in the original, drifts through the production like a ghost until bursting into song just before the finale. She's played by opera singer Megan Roth and performs in French.
These the two added performers aren't really essential for the six original characters carry the action right along. MacIntosh plays Agrippina in diva style, worthy of any mini-series. Narciso's Nero, who starts the show taking a shower onstage after climbing out of his motorcycle leathers captures all the emperor's legendary dangerous charm. Janson's boyish heroine is a teenager in over her head as she weighs Nero's demands. O'Donnell's Britannicus doesn't get beyond being a victim and a dupe, but is convincingly intense. And Sierros conveys a sense of disappointed loyalty. As the two conspiring servants, Barnes and Krstansky handle a lot of the exposition while remaining interesting by their moments of intrigue. Krstansky has the final messenger speech which describes Junia's escape after Nero poison Britannicus upstage in dumb show followed by Barnes' death at the hands of a mob, but the director has planted her unmoving and seated downstage with unconvincing bloodstains on her white ensemble. Of course, Agrippina has the final word cursing her son, after which Nero plays a monotonous power chord while Octavia holds a video camera on him. Pourquoi?
Woodruff's additions to the play, which strangely don't include the better known Seneca--Nero's Carl Rove -- and the use of live video projections fortunately don't interfere with Racine's tightly constructed drama, making this one of the more watchable shows at the ART in the past few seasons. Riccardo Hernandez's set places the requisite single acting area on a platform down center with a narrow passage in front. Seemingly Nero's waiting room, it's sparsely furnished and backed by plastic projection surfaces behind Venetian blinds. The rest of the stage is bare to the walls except for the two bedrooms, Nero's nest and Agrippina's hideaway on either side. Christopher Akerlind's lighting grid looms over the set and the orchestra. Kay Voyce's costume plot has Agrippina in glittery back--she's a widow twice over--while Albina her confidant is in a tailored white power suit. Nero, often bare chested, is in high-end gray, while Britannicus is youthfully grubby until he shows up for the fatal banquet in a casual cranberry ensemble. Junia, who was abducted from her bed, is first seen in her underwear on the downstage edge, silent and tied to a chair during the first scene, then gets an oversized sweatshirt, boy shorts and sweatsocks for the rest of the evening. Narcissus, the household spy dressed as a street dealer, has an orange hoodie under his shabby jacket while Burrhus, the older tough guy, seems to have escaped from a CIA movie. Octavia in her wanderings wears a gold evening dress. It's all not very imperial but sufficiently indicative.
Since the show would be inaudible otherwise, the cast wears head mikes with the usual distractions. David Remedios' sound design manages a careful mix but this results in a common volume level furthering the impression of that this is a prime time TV drama. Leah Gelpe's live video, occasionally looped, is a minor distraction which adds little to the drama but probably keeps some of the audience from being bored from having to listen to the language. The result of all this effort is tolerable but not fully engaging. Racine's final drama didn't accomplish his intent of dissuading Louis XIV from exercising his absolute power unwisely. Woodruff's embellishments don't do more than illustrate the huge motto hung on the back wall; "Empire creates its own reality." Only individual performances by a solid cast become occasionally engaging.