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A CurtainUp San Francisco Review
Nero -- Another Golden Rome

As if from the heart of nowhere -- the ancient Circus Maximus ? --- An edgy figure from the present day, Boccaccio sings "Hello Hell; Hello Darkness; Hello Love . . ."

San Francisco's Magic Theatre is known for presenting new plays. Their third annual Hot House Season features three world premieres by three exciting playwrights. First comes Nero by acclaimed playwright Steven Sater and Grammy-nominated Duncan Sheik. It's a challenging mix of language, imagery and music that combines classical themes --decadent Romans in Felliniesque costumes and makeup-- with contemporary political farce.

Sater's language is worthy of the bard himself. All of the actors are Shakespeare trained so the multiple Latin and Greek bon mots roll easily off the talented six-man/maid crew. There are also snatches of fractured French, German, Spanish and Italian, not to mention quotes from Chaucer, Aeschylus, Seneca, John Milton --and Barbara Bush! (Political parallels and parodies abound.)

If one isn't an English major recently out of grad school or a Roman history buff, catching all the literary references may become a bit more tedious than funny. It's like playing a game of literary Jeopardy. I personally loved it.

The chaotic, depraved political and personal world of Nero's Rome comes to life in this feast of language, imagery, and music. Sater and Sheik have created an experimental landscape to portray the dangerous excesses of the much maligned boy-emperor Nero.

The action starts with narrator Boccaccio (Andrew Hurteau) singing an sad slow evocation of the afterlife"Hello, Hell." --aided by effective confrontational lighting effects by Russell Champa. He also quotes Ovid in Latin and the Iliad in Greek. The young cast climbs and swings from ladders, rugs, strings of lights and empty doorways as we hear variations on the life of Nero (a slender, be-wigged Drew Hirshfield) -- snatches of history on his rise to power as engineered by his dominating mother, Agrippina (sultry, stunning Catherine Smitko), and his tutor Seneca (a slippery, sneaky David Cramer); the murder of his stepbrother and rival Brittanicus (the talented, hunky Joe Mandragona); and the schemes of his later mistress Poppea (sexy Sofia Ahmad).

Don't worry if you don't know enough Roman history to grasp all the references toCaesars, Claudius, Caligula et al. It's all great wicked fun, carried along by Sheik's haunting recorded music. Though it starts a bit slowly, once Smitko as Agrippina sweeps into the room the play comes alive. Her voice, her presence is all one expects of the notorious grand dame to deliver such luminous lines as "Ah is this the cheek-this tender, white… this orphan cheek… Is this to be the last-best piece of our… our Claudius…? For he is gone. Gone. Gone…" Her Agrippina is at once bold, motherly and threatening. When she sings a strange soaring ode to the night later on, Boccaccio says what we're all thinking, "God, just imagine what that was like for little Nero…to follow an act like that." Indeed!

There are other fine bits throughout. It all feels very Shakespeare, like something you know and remember like deja vu. Another theme to which Boccaccio, keeps returning hasn't yet fully developed by the playwright but some purposeful, thematic tightening is in the works. Sater's proud mother (in the audience Sunday afternoon) told me that "Steven was here last night, taking notes…adding and subtracting things." It is a world premiere after all.

Sater and Sheik previously collaborated on the musical version of Frank Wedekind's Spring Awakening, produced by Roundabout Theatre in 2003, and the pair is currently at work on another musical called The Nightingale.

Playwright Steven Sater
Music composed by Duncan Sheik
Directed by Beth Milles
Cast: Nero (Drew Hirshfield), Agrippina (Catherine Smitko), Seneca (David Cramer), Brittanicus (Joe Mandragona). Poppea (Sofia Ahmad).
Sets: Melpomene Katakalos
Costumes: Raquel Barreto
Lighting: Russell H. Champa
Runs February 18 - April 9, 2006
Running time: Two hours, 10 minutes.
Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, San Francisco, (415) 441-8822.
Tickets: $20-$40.
Reviewed by Phyllis Butler, February 19th

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