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You, Nero

Nero
John Vickery and Danny Scheie
The program notes for the world premiere production of Amy Freed's Roman farce You, Nero tell us that Freed had actor Danny Scheie in mind for the title role while she was writing it. And you can tell. Scheie's Nero dominates, as well the crazed emperor should. Flitting between giddy fan-boy appreciation of an actor and all-powerful ruler who could order your death if feeling displeased, Scheie turns on a dime (or, as Freed's era-mixing dialogue would say, turns on a sesterce). At one point, Nero chides, "Oh, come on. It's a joke. Can't you tell when I'm kidding by now?" But we never can, and it's the unpredictability of Scheie's Nero that drives the play. Scheie is also solidly on top of Freed's dialogue, nailing every laugh, while others on stage sometimes miss the timing, earning the occasional awkward silence.

Guiding us on a trip into Nero's insanity is a playwright, Scribonius, who is commissioned by Nero (who fancies himself the world's first "emperor-ssario"), to write a play about Nero that will better endear him to the Roman people. And the farce elevates as everyone wants something different out of the play. Nero's mistress, Poppaea, uses her (not insubstantial) womanly wiles to seduce Scribonius into writing the play to her specifications; Nero's mother, Agrippina, uses her own powers (of, quite amusingly, mothering) to melt Scribonius into an obedient child who will write what she wants. Add in Nero's tutors, who want the play to inspire Nero to ennoble himself, and Scribonius's task appears even more impossible.

If you take a moment to consider it, there's something heartening in the fact that everyone in You, Nero works on the assumption that a play can actually have an effect on people—that it can change opinions and even behaviors, rather than merely entertain. Freed actually has a reason for doing this (beyond being a playwright herself). She has something to say here, and the way she ultimately does it, by pushing her farce further and further into insanity, is actually quite brilliant.

John Vickery plays Scribonius, the writer who is in way over his head and keeps hoping he can write a play that will enable him to keep it. Vickery doesn't have the increasingly frenetic pacing you'd expect of the playwright whose situation keeps getting worse; instead, he's an easily malleable everyman who keeps thinking he can find the way out. Caralyn Kozlowski's Poppaea has a streak of madness herself (you'd probably need one to love Nero) and she's at her absolute funniest in an inspired bit of business in the first act. Lori Larsen's Agrippina is well aware of her power, and she manipulates others with glee. Kasey Mahaffy is also notable as Fabiolo, an actor Nero absolutely adores—a bit too much for his own good. But it all ultimately comes down to the actor playing Nero himself, and Scheie ably carries this play, even as his Nero threatens to destroy drama as we know it.

You, Nero runs at South Coast Repertory through January 25, 2009. For tickets and information, see www.scr.org.

South Coast Repertory—David Emmes, Producing Artistic Director; Martin Benson, Artistic Director—presents the World Premiere of You, Nero by Amy Freed. Scenic Design Erik Flatmo; Costume Design Paloma H. Young; Lighting Design Peter Maradudin; Original Music and Sound Design Stephen LeGrand and Eric Drew Feldman; Dramaturg John Glore; Production Manager Joshua Marchesi; Stage Manager Julie Haber; Directed by Sharon Ott.

Cast:
Scribonius - John Vickery
Batheticus/Beppo/Burrus - Hal Landon, Jr.
Nero - Danny Scheie
Zippo/Seneca/Patheticus - Richard Doyle
Manulius/Fabiolo/Octabia's Ghost/Young Nero - Kasey Mahaffy
Agrippina - Lori Larsen
Poppaea/Inspiration - Caralyn Kozlowski
Ensemble - Angelle Buffet
Ensemble - Christopher Crawford
Ensemble - Marisa Hampton


Photo: Henry DiRocco


- Sharon Perlmutter






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