You, Nero, a CurtainUp Los Angeles theater review
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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Freed, whose wonderful play "The Beard of Avon" took on Shakespeare and the authorship of his plays with delicious inventiveness, has less malleable material here. Maybe violence isn't funny to us right now.
Despite a world-class premiere production at South Coast Repertory which commissioned it, starring the ineffable Danny Scheie in the title role, You, Nero, a title that may be a tribute to the superb BBC series I, Claudius, never soars, either as satire or with the simple silliness of A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum. Freed has called it autobiographical and certainly there's no argument about a playwright's difficulty in making his/her voice heard over the pandering to the public of spectacle and noise. But nothing new or striking is said about this self-evident concept though you can hear it trying and superbly enunciated by the excellent cast.
Director Sharon Ott has carefully orchestrated the performance around Scheie's flamboyant turn as Nero which metronomes between hilarity and vicious conviction. John Vickery cannily balances Scheie as Nero's straight man Scribonius, a fictional playwright whose career has been reduced to coaching mimes. Ignoring his friends' warnings, he accepts a commission from Nero to write a play that burnishes the Emperor's PR image and finds himself battling not only Nero's nuttiness but his love life which bounces between his beautiful mistress Poppea (Caralyn Kozlowski), Fabiolo, the beautiful young man Nero castrates to make him a woman (Kasey Mahaffy) and Nero's manipulative Oedipal mother, Agrippina (Lori Larsen). Scribonius puts on a play starring his favorite actor Patheticus (Richard Doyle) but that doesn't permanently sway Nero, any more than the advice of former tutors Burrus (Hal Landon, Jr.) and Seneca (also Richard Doyle).
Erik Flatmo's terra cotta scenic design makes its moments by wheeling on a few gorgeous Roman couches and is mellowed by Peter Maradudin's lighting design and enhanced by Paloma H. Young's luscious costumes. Production values and Scheie's scintillating performance make You, Nero worth a look.