Reviewed by Judy Richter
The Roman emperor Nero was hardly a morally upright guy. History tells us that he was wickedly depraved beyond comprehension. Among other things, he caused hundreds of people to die. So it's comes as no surprise in Amy Freed's "You, Nero," that when he summons a playwright, Scribonius of Carthage (Jeff McCarthy), to his palace, Scribonius answers the call, but with some trepidation. It seems that Nero (Danny Scheie) wants Scribonius to write a play about him. Scribonius, apparently an early student of psychology, figures that if he can flatter Nero into thinking that he's really a moral, just ruler, he just might become one.
That's the premise of Freed's new play, being presented as a world premiere co-production by Berkeley Repertory Theatre and South Coast Repertory, where it had its initial outing earlier this year before moving north. Sharon Ott directs, returning to Berkeley, where she was the artistic director for 13 years before serving Seattle Repertory Theatre in the same capacity for nine years. Earlier this season she staged an adaptation of Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment" for Berkeley Rep. This latter outing is more successful.
In addition to Nero and Scribonius, Freed's fast-paced, witty comedy peoples the stage with Agrippina (Lori Larsen), Nero's ambitious, incestuous mother; and Poppaea (Susannah Schulman), his sexy mistress, who uses her wiles on Scribonius. Other actors portray several characters. Kasey Mahaffy, for example, is seen as Fabiolo, who becomes another of Nero's eunuchs, as well as Octavia's (Nero's murdered wife) Ghost and others. Richard Doyle portrays Seneca, one of Nero's advisers; Zippo, another of his eunuchs; and Patheticus, an actor. Mike McShane, formerly known to local audiences as Micheal McShane, makes a welcome return to the Bay Area after a 20-year absence, including several years in England. He portrays Burrus, an adviser; Beppo, a eunuch; and Batheticus, an actor. Donnell Hill, Maggie Mason and Sarah Moser complete the ensemble.
Ott paces the show well, never allowing it to become too silly, which could happen with Scheie, whose performances can sometimes be campily over the top. Instead Scheie is a wonderfully mercurial Nero, while McCarthy is a solid foil as Scribonius, who often can't quite believe what he's seeing or hearing. Schulman is terrifically cunning as Poppaea, as is Larsen as Agrippina. McShane, Mahaffy and Doyle all do well in their varied roles. Erik Flatmo's tiled set is initially dominated by a bust of Nero on an upstage platform, which serves as varied settings. The lighting is by Peter Maradudin, the costumes by Paloma H. Young. Stephen LeGrand and Eric Drew Feldman collaborated on the music and sound.
Although set in Rome in 64 A.D., "You, Nero" has some clever 21st century anachronisms. The second act has occasional lags, but overall, the play is lots of fun.