Nero fiddled while Rome burned.” An anachronistic line everybody’s heard; there’s no graceful way to say that he “lyred.” Amy Freed picks up on both the imperial aestheticism and the anachronistic sentiment in her play, You, Nero, now onstage at Berkeley Rep.
The title is, of course, another anachronism, chiming (or jangling) on Robert Graves’ popular ’30s novel, I, Claudius, about Nero’s predecessor, and the celebrated Von Sternberg “project” (the uncompleted film, that is) with Charles Laughton as the languorous Roman. (A documentary, included with the ’70s BBC TV series, preserves about a half-hour of the film’s footage.)
Laughton’s inspired histrionics were based, so he said, on Edward VIII’s abdication speech. Danny Scheie, playing Claudius’ adopted heir, takes thespian afflatus a step further to what one reviewer described as “impishly” bitchy. From the expressionistic Laughtonian tone, he’s added a touch of decay—in the musical sense—and as counterpoint to things falling apart.
The twinkle in Nero’s eye, like that in Stalin’s, could either mean a practical joke or tortuous death.
Freed re-creates the familiar Rome of bread and circuses, in which Nero entices—or shanghaies—a hack playwright, Scribonius (Jeff McCarthy, playing it straight, or at least deadpan), to personalize the emperor and make him lovable to the mob. Half narrating and otherwise acting out his enmeshment in the messy politics and personalities of Nero’s court (in particular, Susannah Schulman’s Poppaea, the emperor’s ex-mistress, a ravening Diana of sexual conquest), Scribonius witnesses Nero portraying his own angst at the Colosseum, American Idol style. Finally, the discarded author writes a message in a bottle to float on the waves of time, telling these unspeakable things to future ages.
Besides I, Claudius, the period in question is covered not only by Latin historians Suetonius and Tacitus (either more than just a good read) but also in the drama of the period and since. Racine’s 17th century tragedy Britannicus digs into the nuance of intrigue, Nero’s manipulative mother Agrippina (now on the outs and in a power struggle with her boy) saying: “Rome is too prejudiced in my favor” and adding of her son, “If he did not fear me, I should fear him.”
Nero’s tutor, the philosopher Seneca, is credited (undoubtedly erroneously) with a tragedy, Octavia, about Nero divorcing Claudius’ daughter to consort with Poppaea. Possibly Seneca’s, a farce, called something like ‘Claudius, Pumpkinified,’ about the late emperor’s afterlife, was reported to have Nero’s court “laughing helplessly.” Certainly the philosopher and rhetorician penned a mock panegyric on Claudius, meant to make his successor smile.
Lots of eminent precedent in staging these events, whether as tragedy or comedy.
While admittedly comic, Freed’s production (under the directing of Sharon Ott) tries for a little tragedy as well. (In Freed’s account, “On What’s Funny and How to Get There,” she confesses, “I never set out to write comic plays. My themes as a writer are usually serious, even though the delivery’s not.”)
And the cast is pretty funny all by themselves, with such accomplished farceurs as Mike McShane and Richard Doyle in multiple roles from Seneca to court eunuch—and the exceptional Lori Larson as a Crawford-esque Mommy dearest of an Agrippina, joined by Kasey Mahaffy, Donnell Hill, Maggie Mason and Sarah Moser. Erik Flatmo’s sets, which some called “Las Vegas,” catch the overblown lavishness of Nero’s (or our) era in a very theatrical way (an enormous sculpted head of the emperor, dominating the stage when the lights go up, is quickly wheeled off, never to be seen again). Paloma Young’s costumes and Peter Maradudin’s lighting follow suit.
But YOU, NERO never catches the tone or the real drift of the material, though Ott’s direction seems to aim at the breathlessly comic, in a desultory fashion. A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM it ain’t, nor is it Mel Brooks. Schtick and sketch-iness alternate with half-reflective moments; the intent is there, but not much develops, except in the way, say, a mini-series develops—but the stage makes for a different dynamic.
“What an artist Rome loses in me!” Nero’s supposed to have gasped out at his suicide. A life of self-expression, against a social backdrop of poverty and disaster, is a good thing to reflect on in times like these, imaged in antiquity. But beware of a reflection aesthetic in itself—“imitations of art,” as Meyerhold put it—or of just staring into the mirror.
8 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; 7 p.m. Wednesdays and Sundays; 2 p.m. Sundays and every other Wednesday through June 28 at Berkeley Rep’s Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison. $13.50-$71. 647-2949. www.berkeleyrep.org.
Amy Freed will be interviewed by artistic director Tony Taccone at 7 p.m. Monday, June 15. Free admission.