Theater review: `You, Nero’

May 21

Opened May 20, 2009 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre
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Danny Scheie solidifies his reputation as one of the Bay Area’s best, most original actors as the title character in Amy Freed’s You, Nero on Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage. Photos by kevinberne.com

A funny thing happened on the way to `You, Nero’
««« ½

Berkeley Repertory Theatre ends a spectacular 41st season with local playwright Amy Freed’s You, Nero – and it’s a fitting conclusion after the varied, adventurous delights of Yellowjackets, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, The Arabian Nights, In the Next Room (The Vibrator Play) and The Lieutenant of Inishmore.

In a theater world that seems to be contracting and cowering, Berkeley Rep continues to prove its mettle by challenging and rewarding audiences at every turn.

And so it falls to the tyrant of a crumbling empire to end the season in a burst of laughter.

You, Nero has been somewhat revised and re-cast since its premiere earlier this year at South Coast Repertory, and though it hasn’t yet reached its zenith, this sharp, thoughtful comedy is definitely on the ascendant. Freed, author of The Beard of Avon and Restoration Comedy among others, writes for people with highly developed brains and funny bones – and they don’t necessarily have to be attached. She can be intellectual, low brow or both, and she’s probably incapable of not entertaining or engaging her audience.

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For two-plus hours, Freed, working again with director Sharon Ott (a former artistic director of Berkeley Rep), pulls laughs out of a fairly serious subject: the end of the Roman Empire. While democracy fell victim to corruption, nihilism, degradation, persecution, the citizens (the ones who weren’t being tortured or starved, anyway) looked the other way or were distracted by mindless mass entertainments (how fitting that You, Nero opened the same night as the “American Idol” finale).

And there, surfing Rome’s tidal wave of destruction, is the emperor, Nero Caesar.

Freed’s basic idea here borrows from Dickens. Instead of three ghosts appearing to show Nero the error of his ways before Christmas morning, she creates a Jiminy Cricket-like conscience in the form of a playwright, Scribonius of Carthage, whose art will expose Nero’s flaws, the psychological scars of his childhood and the moral goodness he has most likely repressed.

Happily, Nero resists all attempts at course correction, and his reign ends in a fiery rock concert.

Effortlessly blending contemporary and classical, Freed’s comedy generates continuous laughter. Ott’s cast descends from comedy nirvana with Danny Scheie as Nero serving as lord and master of the merry mayhem.

Jeff McCarthy (of Broadway’s Urinetown: The Musical, above with Scheie) as Scribonius could arguably be called the show’s protagonist, and he’s a great guide for the audience, but the play gets a comic turbo charge every time Scheie struts on stage looking every inch the delightful despot in costume designer Paloma H. Young’s slick toga finery.

Scheie is such a uniquely gifted comic actor that he can generate laughs from syllables instead of entire words. One of the evening’s longest laughs comes from Scheie uttering one word – “no” – because his timing is so expert. Childish, imperious, frightening and flamboyant, Scheie’s energetic Nero is a one-man spectacle as he veers from giddy delight to tyrannical tempest to nearly genuine introspection.

Though widely admired here in the Bay Area, Scheie emerges a true star in this play, and it’s impossible to imagine You, Nero having future life without him.

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To be sure, this is Scheie’s show, but the supporting cast is superb. In addition to McCarthy’s solid Scribonius, we have the wonderful Kasey Mahaffy as Fabiolo, a hot young actor who unfortunately catches the eye of Nero, and Lori Larsen as Agrippina, Nero’s mother and occasional bedmate (yes, there are plenty of incest jokes). Berkeley native Susannah Schulman (above, with McCarthy) is fantastic as Poppaea, Nero’s ruthless lover, for whom life at court is the be-all, end-all of existence.

Whether playing the actors Batheticus and Patheticus or the wise Romans Burrus and Seneca, Mike McShane and Richard Doyle are a hoot, especially when they don skullcaps to play the eunuchs Beppo and Zippo.

There are comic moments in Nero that, to paraphrase Freed, are so profane they’re sacred. So why doesn’t the play feel like it’s completely there? Partly because of the split focus shared by Nero and Scribonius. The other has to do with Nero’s rock star epiphany, when he eschews (gesundheit!) the art of traditional theater to do his own egomaniacal thing.

What’s needed here is a full-on Hedwig and the Angry Inch moment, but we get a half-hearted attempt (original music and sound design by Stephen LeGrand and Eric Drew Feldman) that has the trappings of rock (Erik Flatmo’s set gives way to a scene right out of Gypsy and Peter Maradudin’s lights go appropriately rock concert crazy). But where the scene should rage, it sort of fizzles.

There’s work yet to be done on You, Nero, though what’s here is pretty rich. This play is too good to follow Rome’s example of going down in flames.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Amy Freed’s You, Nero continues through June 28 on the Berkeley Repertory Theatre Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $33-$71. Call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org for information.

SPECIAL EVENT

Page to Stage, an ongoing series of conversations with theater artists, brings You, Nero playwright Amy Freed to the Thrust Stage with Berkeley Rep artistic director Tony Taccone for a free event at 7 p.m. June 15.

2 comments

  1. God, I thought Jeff McCarthy looked familar. I saw him in both the off Broadway and on Broadway of “Urinetown”. My mind is starting to go ;-0

    Oh also I would have liked to have seen some of the Sondheim’s songs thrown in and some of the scenes thrown out. Just my comment.

  2. Just some more comments. My review was shipped off to New York before I read your review (God knows when it will come up since they are going crazy over Tonys back there). I get the Daily Hollywood Reporter and Daily Variety since I was in the business for about 50 years.

    Hollywood Report called it “extravagant homophobic and misogynisic production. However that said the Reporter said it was a legitimate reflection of historical fact and the proedatory nature of Nero’s Rome”. They did wonder how it would go over in the politically correct Berkeley audience. I did notice when Agrippina called them politically uncorrect names in the second act, no one laugh on opening night.

    I was sitting next to a gay critic and he was very offended by the calling saying it was completely out of line for the PC audience. I guess I was not offended since this was almost a gay farce and should not be taken seriously.

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