Theater review: `You, Nero’

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

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.


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 for information.


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.

2007 theater Top 10

I can always tell whether a theater year has been good or not so good when I sit down to hammer out my Top 10 list. If I can summon five or more shows simply from memory, it’s a good year. This year’s entire list came almost entirely from memory (which is a feat in itself as the old noggin’ ain’t what it used to be), so it was a good year indeed.

Here’s the countdown leading to my No. 1 pick of the year.

10. Anna Bella Eema, Crowded Fire Theatre Company — Three fantastic actresses, Cassie Beck, Danielle Levin and Julie Kurtz, brought Lisa D’Amour’s tone poem of a play to thrilling life.

9. First Person Shooter, SF Playhouse and Playground — What a good year for SF Playhouse. This original play by local writer Aaron Loeb brought some powerhouse drama to its examination of violent video games and school violence.

8. Bulrusher, Shotgun Players — Berkeley’s own Eisa Davis’ eloquent play, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for drama, turned the Northern California dialect of Boontling into poetic drama as it told the story of an outcast young woman finding her place in the world.

7. Avenue Q, Best of Broadway/SHN — Hilarious and irreverent, this puppet-filled musical by Jeff Marx, Robert Lopez and Jeff Whitty made you believe in friendship, life after college and the joys of puppet sex.

6. Jesus Hopped the `A’ Train, SF Playhouse — It took a while for Stephen Adly Guirgis’ intense drama to make it to the Bay Area, but the wait was worth it, if only for Berkeley resident Carl Lumbly in the central role of a murderer who may have seen the error of his ways. And note: This is the second SF Playhouse show on the list.

5. Emma, TheatreWorks _ Paul Gordon’s sumptuous, funny and, of course, romantic adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel came marvelously to life as a musical, with a star-making performance by Pleasanton native Lianne Marie Dobbs.

4. Argonautika, Berkeley Repertory Theatre _ Mary Zimmerman’s athletic retelling of the Jason and the Argonauts myth fused beauty and muscle and impeccable storytelling into a grand evening of theater.

3. Which Is More Than I Can Say About Some People, Word for Word — Actually, the second half of Strangers We Know, this stage adaptation of Lorrie Moore’s short story was brilliantly directed by Joel Mullenix and performed by Patricia Silver and Sheila Balter.

2. Man and Superman, California Shakespeare Theater _ This unbelievably vivid version of George Bernard Shaw’s massive existentialist comedy benefited from superior direction by Jonathan Moscone and an impeccable cast headed by Elijah Alexander and Susannah Livingston.

1. The Crowd You’re in With, Magic Theatre _ The team of playwright Rebecca Gilman and director Amy Glazer fused into brilliance with this slice-of-life meditation on why we make the choices we make in our lives. Local luminaries Lorri Holt and Charles Shaw Robinson brought incredible humor and tenderness to their roles, and T. Edward Webster in the lead managed to make ambivalence compelling.

Now it’s your turn. Please post your favorite theater moments of 2007 — no geographical limitations, just good theater.

Review: `Man and Superman’

Opened Saturday, July 7, 2007, Bruns Amphitheater, Orinda

Cal Shakes’ Man and Superman soars with superheroic cast
four stars Shavian perfection

A lifetime happiness? No man alive could bear it.

So says Jack Tanner the irresistible leading man in George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman, the second show of the California Shakespeare Theater season.

A lifetime of happiness may be unattainable, but for about three hours and 15 minutes, director Jonathan Moscone, his extraordinary cast and Shaw’s incredible gift for enlightened entertainment provide a distinct measure of glee.

The summer weather in Orinda, not to mention Shaw himself, can get a little chilly, and sure enough, Saturday’s opening night was shrouded in fog and brisk around the edges. But Moscone and his actors kept the chill at bay with a production so full of energy and ideas that you left the Bruns Amphitheater more charged up than when you entered it.

Moscone has judiciously trimmed what he could from Acts 1, 2 and 4 so that he can include the Act 3 play-within-the-play, Don Juan in Hell, a thrilling dream sequence that cuts to the heart of the issues in the play and provides an enjoyable philosophical take on humanity that essentially says nothing ever really changes, we’ll never fully know why we’re here, we’re obsessed with our fear/love of death and it would be foolish to exist without a balance of serious thought and serious fun.

Most productions of Man and Superman cut the Don Juan sequence (or produce it as its own one-act play), but it’s a joy to see the sequence in the context of the larger play, because it really does pull everything together.

Moscone aids this unity by incorporating swaths of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, with actors lip synching arias and choruses to great comic effect.

That’s really the only directorial embellishment here. Otherwise, this is straightforward Shaw, performed on Annie Smart’s elegant, simple sets: an industrial metal pair of curlicues provides a sort of proscenium with the gorgeous trees and hills fully visible (and lit beautifully by Russell H. Champa) behind.

During an Act 2 trip to a country home, we’re treated to a psiffy early 20th-century automobile, and when the scene changes to Hell, where the devil is outfitted like Hugh Hefner and nuns consigned to the lower depths drink Tab and Heineken, we get illuminated rocks and, ultimately, a disco party.

The tremendous efforts of the cast here cannot be emphasized too highly, especially those of leading man Elijah Alexander as the roguish revolutionary Jack Tanner and Susannah Livingston as the charming, conniving Ann Whitefield (above).

These two formidable actors carry the bulk of the play (with the heavy lifting in hell provided by an exuberant Andy Murray as Senor Satan) and attack their roles with such seeming joy, it’s almost impossible not to be swept away by them. They are overflowing with the Life Force that Shaw keeps bringing up in the text.

Alexander (last seen at Cal Shakes in Restoration Comedy) has numerous rants against the hypocrisy of so-called liberals and against the horrendous institution of marriage, but he’s never boring. Part of the reason is that he’s physically so invested in what he’s saying — his body language punctuates everything he says unbelievably well. Never mind that all the other characters listen to him then summarily dismiss everything he says.

And Livingston, a Cal Shakes regular, is all grace, intelligence and ulterior motives as her character manipulates pretty much everyone on stage.

L. Peter Callender is a marvelous Roebuck Ramsden, a pillar of society and a prude (as Jack Tanner says, “Pooh, prudery!”), and Ben Livingston (husband of Susannah in case you were wondering) almost makes the mealy mouthed Octavius Robinson pitiable as everyone keeps telling him to be more of a man.

Delia MacDougall is commanding as Violet Robinson, and Dan Hiatt is great fun as the chauffeur Straker, a man for more educated and worldly wise than the middle-class boobs who employ him.

Shaw jokes about the “pious English habit of regarding the world as a moral gymnasium built expressly to strengthen your character in,” but Shaw’s plays, especially Man and Superman provide a strenuous mental workout. Such an effort for our lazy 21st-century minds could be tedious, but when the exercise is as sharp, clever and captivating as this Cal Shakes production, there’s happiness to be found as Shaw asks us to ponder religion, politics, art and that trifling thing known as human existence.

For information about Man and Superman, visit