The general concept of You, Nero, a comedy currently playing at Arena Stage, is a good one. Set in ancient Rome, resident playwright Amy Freed explores the life and times of Emperor Nero, a man with a tremendous appetite for power and attention. Instead of doing a straight ‘biographical sketch’ of this infamous historical character, Freed chooses to have Scribonius, a dramatist, be summoned to Nero’s residence to write a play about Nero and his life, including his complex and sometime unnerving relationships with his mother and his mistress.
This ‘play within a play’ approach is interesting and compelling because it allows Nero and his cohorts, along with Scribonius, to play with the idea of creating one’s own destiny. The blurred lines between reality and fiction are also explored as Nero and his cohorts try to convince Scribonius to create and focus on particular plot points in his play. As a result, Scribonius finds that he can’t simply be an observer of Nero’s story, but is, in reality, a part of it. In a day and age where political memoirs and biographies of the nefarious and not-so-nefarious (depending on one’s perception) characters in world politics are very common, it is very possible to find parallels between Ancient Rome and today. To that end, it’s a good choice to include the play in Arena’s season – at least at a conceptual level.
However, Freed chooses to develop her script in such a way that sacrifices the exploration of major themes for, at times, low-brow comedic entertainment. For example, in act two golden testicles emerge on stage and a Jehovah’s Witness is dragged by an animal through the coliseum (we won’t give away the details). Likewise, the audience is treated to more than several groan-worthy puns: Nero is said to be the ‘emperorsario’ of a theatre festival at one point in the show. Certainly, this story can be treated through a comedic lens because Nero was larger than life, but it seems like the playwright focuses more on “what’s potentially funny” than how to focus and develop the story at hand. It’s an execution problem rather than a conceptual one.
One of the fundamental problems with the execution of the play’s concept lies with the character of Nero himself. Freed chooses to question his sexual orientation and many of his scenes are played way over the top as if he was a ‘drama queen.’ Though this is a valid decision (his sexuality, as well as that of other Roman leaders has been subject to much discussion in historical circles), his preference is played for laughs – perhaps too many laughs. We reach the point where any sense of reality is lost. Director Nicholas Martin has allowed Nero to become a campy caricature of a person and with that choice, it’s hard to see through the layers to understand what makes Nero tick and why he does what he does. As Nero is a central character in the play, this allows the story to lose focus and meander.
Despite our misgivings about the script, we emphasize that Arena’s production of the play is quite strong – both in terms of acting and presentation. Broadway stalwart Jeff McCarthy (Scribonius) does a commendable job in bringing a sense of reality to the evening and is, by far, the standout. He appropriately conveys the moral dilemmas and emotions that Scribonius has to face as he is asked to be a pawn in the hands of a ruthless power-hungry leader and his companions.
DC regular Nancy Robinette portrays Agrippina, Nero’s mother, with considerable ease despite the intrinsic challenges of the role. This role gives her a chance to demonstrate her considerable comedic chops and she handles some interesting sexual scenes between her and her son quite well.
Danny Scheie is less compelling as Nero since he takes a very over-the-top approach to playing an already larger-than-life character that doesn’t seem quite necessary. However, this decision could be a directorial choice. Either way, it doesn’t quite work.
Other standouts in the cast include Susannah Schulman as Nero’s ruthless lover, Poppaea. Schulman makes it clear that Poppaea is a cunning and single-minded character who will stop at nothing, like her lover, to achieve a goal. It’s clear she understands her character and what motivates her.
The production values are also very strong. James Noone’s set transports the audience to ancient Rome. A clever use of the space (particularly in the center of the “in the round” stage) allows the action to move from a coliseum to Nero’s palace, to the streets of Rome in the blink of an eye. The red and yellow hues used in the set design are extremely appropriate and eye-appealing. Gabriel Berry’s costumes are also a feast for the eyes. Making use of some of the same colors as in the set, his decidedly period costumes (with gladiator sandals to boot) are character-specific and give the audience insight on the players on stage- both their station in life and their values. Nero and Poppaea’s purple and red costumes remind the audience of their need for power while Sanctimonius’ green one is much more subdued and average. Matthew Richards’ and Drew Levy’s lighting and sound design complement the sets and the costumes well and provide suitable ambience to transport the audience to ancient Rome.
Running Time: 2 hours and five minutes, including one intermission.
You, Nero plays through January 1, 2012, in Arena Stage’s Fichlander Theatre at The Mead Center for American Theater – 1101 Sixth Street, SW, in Washington DC. For tickets call (202) 488-3300, or purchase them online.