Photo by Scott Suchman
Nero is perhaps most well known as the Emperor of Rome who let the city burn as he played the fiddle. A widely known piece of history that isn’t entirely true yet perfectly paints a portrait of a ruler who cared more about himself than his people. The vanity of Nero could easily be compared to others in history- from Napoleon to today’s mega-celebrities and athletes.
Danny Scheie steals every scene as the self-absorbed ruler of the early Roman empire in Arena Stage’s production of You, Nero. From the moment Scheie enters the stage we feel Nero’s ginormous presence fill every inch of the Finchandler Stage. In a fitting moment of irony one of his first lines to the audience is a woeful, “Poor me!”
Of course we take less pity on him and more laughter as we take-in Nero’s over the top appreciation for himself.
Despite a fantastic job by Jeff McCarthy in the role of Scribonius, a role McCarthy took on only days before the opening, he is simply a guide through this hilarious send-up of ancient Rome. The real star is Nero and Scheie reprises the role he first performed in early West Coast productions with panache, pizzazz, and flamboyance.
Freed’s vision of Nero as a closeted diva of questionable sexuality lends for great comedy. History is littered with rumors of a more than friendly relationship between Nero and his mother Agrippina (Nancy Robinette in a classic Robinette performance), but playwright Amy Freed adds another spin to the tale with Fabiolo (Kasey Mahaffy), a talented male singer that Nero develops an infatuation over which results in nothing but bad news for Fabiolo. History says Nero used to set Christians on fire to light his gardens, so Nero is clearly willing to go to extremes to get what he wants.
In this somewhat satiric image of Rome, Scribonius is commissioned by Nero to write a biopic play of Nero for the upcoming Neronia festival. Also in the mix is Agrippina and Nero’s mistress Poppaea (Susannah Schulman), who are vying for favorable portrayals in the play for their own benefit.
The set-up feels like a classic farce, it would feel totally appropriate to TV Guide-summarize the play as, “Nero, Agrippina, and Poppaea try to manipulate Scribonius’ entry for the Neronia festival- hilarity ensues.”
However hilarity does not exactly ensue in this play.
Don’t get me wrong, “You, Nero” is extremely funny off the bat, the piece doesn’t stop hamming it up, whether it’s a depiction of a chariot race using paper cut-out puppets or a tongue-in-cheek use of flying body parts and blood to illustrate a gladiator fight to the death. A healthy sprinkling of modern punchlines introduces hilarious images such as a Jehovah’s Witness being chased by an inflatable crocodile.
However the first half feeds us with so much comedic sugar we experience a sort of a crash in the second half. What starts out as a very light comedy turns into a less than entertaining history lesson. The ending is less than satisfying and appears to cram in points at the last minute. With a title such as You, Nero you might expect a comparison between the actions of Nero and the behavior of modern day leaders- but Nero ends up looking like a Pop Star- not a World Leader.
Freed has a great start with this new play but it works better as a satire than an allegory. Then again, Rome wasn’t built in a day- and with You, Nero there is certainly room for growth.
You, Nero at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, through January 1, 2012. Arena Stage is located at 1101 Sixth Street SW, Washington, DC 20024. Closest Metro stop: Waterfront (Green line). For more information call 202-488-3300.