I anticipate that theatres consider carefully the shows which they produce between Thanksgiving and Christmas. While some make be overtly holiday oriented, such as Dicken’s tale, Tchaikovsy’s tunes, or even those two guy from Tuna Texas, other have become the holiday show, say “Sound of Music”, “Twelth Night”, etc. When we scheduled our season tickets for Arena Stage, I thought that a new play about the Roman Emperor Nero, seemed a little off.
Upon entering Arena Stage’s Fichandler theatre, which is in the round, I wondered more about how You, Nero fit the season. Above the mosaic floor hovered an eight sided portal with frescos of men and women in various positions, sans nickers. Being set in the round, we could see only half of the images, but our imaginations could fill in the other side well enough. For those needing a refresher on Roman history, Nero was one of the more self-absorbed emperors, who did little about running the empire while pursuing his own pleasures. The frescos above paled in comparison to some of his antics and self-justifications.
For a quick plot review, step into Rome around the middle of the 1st century ACE. Agrippina has established her son on the throne, and rules behind him. Nero has married, but taken on a mistress, Poppaea. She has convinced Nero to exile, and later kill, his queen, so that she may secure her position. The Roman playwrights, Burrus and Seneca, have lost favor in the public, as forum spectacles, gladiators, public executions, and orgies hold popular attention. This much has some historic basis. From this, playwright, Amy Freed, interjects a fictitious playwright, Scribonius, who sets the play in motion, and weaves the themes from 2000 years ago into our own age of self-absorption and self-justification.
Scribonious, after commiserating with Burrus, is summonsed to Nero’s palace. He learns that Nero is concerned about his public image and believes that a play about his life will generate more public attention. In a similar fashion to Equivocation, You, Nero presents a playwright with the dilemma of not whether to respond to the demand of someone in power, but how to present the play that those in power want to sway public opinion. In contrast to Shagspeare’s approach to seek the truth behind the event, Scribonius, with Burrus’ and Seneca’s consultation, determines to use the process of writing the script to alter Nero’s awareness of his behavior and make him a more just ruler.
To Scribonius’ horror, Nero nearly always twists the manipulations in ways that enhance his self-absorption. When he brings in actors to read a scene, Nero’s lust for Fabiolo results in his bondage to the emperor as a eunuch. When he acts out a scene between a boy Nero and his mother, Nero determines to have his mother’s killed. When he elicits the Greek convention of a chorus with the furies, Nero acts out his contrition, only to laugh at Scribonius, “I was just acting”. Nero determines to the the star at his next festival of arts. If the script were not filled so expertly with hilarious lines and twists, all this obsession might become oppressive.
Part of why I attend theatre more frequently that movies, is the experience at live stage that cannot be captured on film. Movies are made during the editing process, not the shooting dates. Stage happens on one day, with the energy of that day’s specific audience. While the script, cast, lighting and effect may be approximately the same from performance to performance, the skill of the stage actor is responding to the unpredictable. Our production held several such elements.
First, our ears perked up when one of the managing directors came before the audience to announce that a casting change had occurred earlier in the week. Without revealing details, he named Jeff McCarthy in the role of Scribonius. He also mentioned that Mr. McCarthy would be carrying his script on stage. Hmmm. Now this is not something that you see routinely. Fortuitous to this play, Scribonius is writing a play, so carrying a script fit the character. Fortunately for us, Mr. McCarthy entered in character, and while occasionally referring to the script during soliloquies, he never left his character. In fact, during certain scenes he might place the script on the edge of the stage or a writing desk, or place it in his satchel as if it were a prop. It is quite a phenomenon to see an actor become his character. It is impressive to watch this process on stage.
An additional factor that Mr. McCarthy had to contend with is that he wear reading glasses. No other character wore glasses, and I do not recall glasses being portrayed in Roman art. So, while these were not a prop, there was one scene in which Poppaea (Susannah Schulman), Nero’s mistress who is trying to seduce Scribonius, uses these glasses cleverly. Scribonius has set them down on his writing desk. While circling around him in her attempt to arouse his desire, Ms. Schulman picked up the glasses and toys with them. He cannot protest that he must write Nero’s script as long as she possesses what allows him to see, and she has flirtatiously caught his eye.
Some events on stage are certainly neither planned nor desired, but a skilled cast continues on. With this cast, they used a fall for great comic effect. Aggrippina (Nancy Robinette) and Poppaea are in the midst of a cat-fight, mother and lover of the emperor style. Scribonius is trying to get them to part. Nero walks in, startling them, with the intent of disarming them with the line about what a beautiful color Aggripina is wearing. I did not catch watch occurred, possibly stepping back on a dress him, but Ms. Robinette toppled back, jewelry and hair pins scattering, and wig thrusting back. Mr. McCarthy skipped to her aid, righted her and restored her mother-of-the-emperor dignity. Nero (Danny Scheie) paused briefly before delivering his line, which had less to do with the purple gown she wore, and more with the flushing that we all felt at that moment. Not much that you can do about the unexpected, except stay in character and do what your character would do.
A final example of excellent performance fooled me. In the scene in which Scribonius is having his actors rehearse the boyhood interaction of young Nero and his mother, the emperor Nero is watching from the side. From my position, I was not sure whether this was Scribonius imagining a boyhood scene or rehearsing one. The scene goes on for several minutes, until Nero reveals himself. The actors are dismissed. A half a minute after the boyhood Nero character leaves the stage, I realized that he was not played by the same actor as Nero, who had entered in the midst of the scene. I tried to figure out which member of the ensemble has stood in for young Nero, so carefully portraying his gesture, expressions, and voice that I did not realize that he was other than Mr. Scheie.
None of these examples could have happened anywhere other than the stage. By the next week’s performance, they might never happen again, as scripts were memorized, hems were correct, and glasses were no longer needed. The editing room would have taken away these moments for the movie viewer.
As to the selection of You, Nero during the holiday season, my thoughts are tangential. Dickens informed us 150 years ago that “Mankind is your business”, not the amassing of wealth. Schultz decried the commercialization of Christmas almost 40 years ago, with Charlie Brown’s Christmas woes. Though not part of the script, Freed warns us of the follie and downfall of leaders and society which becomes self-absorbed. Reality TV? Sports obsessions? Incurring debt for the sake of having more stuff? Sexting? How much more can our society become degraded? As Scribonius ponders while at the arena festival, “How can I, a playwright, fill this empty space?” gesturing toward the head of the young man in front of him. For a season that reminds us of the possibility of transformation, You, Nero, has a message to be heard.