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San Francisco by Richard Connema

A Confused Production of
Nero (Another Golden Rome)

Also see Richard's reviews of Gem of the Ocean and Urinetown

Nero: Another Golden Rome
Drew Hirshfield
The Magic Theatre has opened its Hot House series featuring three world premieres by playwrights who are shaping the future of American theatre. The opening is a mystifying drama about the mentally unbalanced Roman emperor Nero. Steven Sater's Nero (Another Golden Rome) is a work in progress and looks very slapdash in many scenes, especially in the first act. There have been many movie epics that have featured this historical character as bordering on insanity and the playwright attempts to tell the audience why this egomaniac went mad.

Sater places the cause of insanity of the boy-emperor on his mother Agrippina, who apparent had the "hots" for him when growing up. It certainly shows in the acting of Catherine Smitko who plays the matriarch. The playwright has attempted to write an intellectual exercise but he puts in too many confusing characters to make it look smart and clever. There are sailors speaking fractured German, French maids straight out of a Feydeau farce, and English Victorian whores out of Jekyll and Hyde. The five actors are dressed in t-shirts and top hats, and wear evocative white faces. It looks as if we are going to see an Italian representation of commedia dell'arte, but instead we get long diatribes about Ovid which include a spattering of Latin and Greek. One very strange scene has Nero's younger brother Britannicus, who was epileptic, being poisoned by his brother at a dinner party with a rumba type melody. He tap dances his way to death.

Nero's second act is more concise and more in focus. We get legitimate anxiety in this act as Nero becomes insane as the emperor who burns down Rome. There are secret jibes at the current Bush administration and the burning of Rome seems to refer to Katrina that devastated New Orleans.

Nero is interspersed with some ethereal music by Duncan Sheik who wrote Spring Awakening, which was performed as part of the Lincoln Center Theatre "Great American Songbook Series." The music is intriguing and the cultured voice of Catherine Smitko presents them well.

Nero does have an excellent cast, and many of the actors do what they can with the fractured words of the playwright. Catherine Smitko (Chicago actress who was recently in A Funny Way Happened on Way to the Forum at the Marriott) is captivating in the role of Agrippina. She is able to breathe life into such dialogue as "Now, Venus fill my bosom with your blood/Nor, Rome will have me mother of these children/and I must love them as if they love me." Even the narrator Boccaccio played by the talented actor Andrew Hurteau (Rules of Charity, Bronte and Nicholas Nickelby) says "Well, will someone put that woman in a show?" My words thought exactly. Hurteau is saddled with long diatribes that bring in the English poet John Milton at the beginning of the second act.

Drew Hirshfield (young Shakespearian actor who has played in many of the Bard's festivals in the Bay Area) plays the boyish emperor Nero who seems to never grow up. Hirshfield has a great voice but he tends to scream a lot, though I guess that is in character with the mad ruler. David Cramer (Quills, Ted Kaczynski Kills People) gives an excellent portrayal of Seneca, especially when begging Nero to let him live in peace in an Italian villa far away from Rome. Joe Mandragona (Opposite of Sex and 13 Hallucinations of Sex) plays Britannicus as a naive young man who firmly believes he will be the next emperor, and plays a sexy Sporus with a faux Spanish accent. Sofia Ahamad (The Black Eye) is a competent Poppea.

Nero'a production values are excellent as Melpomene Katakalow's set consist of ladders, rugs, stringa of lights overhead and empty doorways on an almost bare stage. Raquel Barreto has created some interesting costumes that look like something out of a Fellini film. Beth F. Milles helms this very detached drama about the boy emperor.

Nero (Another Golden Rome) will run in the Hot House repertory along with Morbidity & Morality and The Ice Breaker through April 8th at the Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, San Francisco. For tickets please call 415-441-8822 or visit www.magictheatre.org. Reviews of the other two plays are upcoming.


Photo: Bill Faulkner


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema



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