Imagine a Mel Brooks spoof about the fabled Roman emperor Nero, or one written and performed by the Monty Python gang, or perhaps a classic Nero sketch from the 1950s’ Your Show Of Shows, with Sid Caesar as Nero.  Now, stretch it out to two acts with a running time of two hours and fifteen minutes and place it on the Julianne Argyros Stage at South Coast Repertory—and you have Amy Freed’s You, Nero.

Though overlong (Brooks wisely keeps his movies running around 90 minutes) and perhaps not at the level of sophistication that some South Coast Rep patrons are going to demand, You, Nero made me laugh, repeatedly (no complaint there), and features numerous performance gems.

The action of You, Nero is seen through the eyes of aging Roman playwright Scribonius, author of such classics as Death Of A Sailmaker and The Lepers Of Cherbourg. These days, however, to Scribonius’ dismay, drama is being replaced by Ancient Rome’s version of reality TV—shows at the Hippodrome featuring gladiators, lions, Christians, etc., and all of it “recreated in Amphi-Sensurround.” Visiting the Hippodrome, Scribonius and fellow playwright Patheticus observe the crowd going wild and doing the 1st Century version of The Wave as center-arena “slaves are hacking themselves to death.” (A severed leg is thrown on stage as proof.)  Scribonius and Patheticus bemoan the fact that never again will they fill a stage because, face it, artists don’t actually kill people.

Scribonius soon finds himself summoned to a meeting at Caesar’s Palace by Nero, Rome’s first “Emperor-sario.”  Arriving at the royal residence, Scribonius is escorted by a pair of eunuchs into Nero’s presence where he is commissioned to write the world’s first “biodrama,” a play centered about the Emperor’s life to be performed at the next “Neronia,” a play that will “reach out and touch the masses before they reach out and touch me.”  In other words, a work of complete and utter fiction.  As for its title, the Emperor suggests Merely Nero, or perhaps Nero, The Just, Good Emperor.

Complications arrive in the guise of Nero’s mother, Agrippina, who never travels without her two pet panthers, and who has her own ideas about what Scribonius’ play should be. Meanwhile, the Emperor’s mistress, Poppaea, wants wife Octavia out of the way (i.e. dead) and Nero wants the fabulous Fabiolo (who already looks quite luscious in his Flashdance top and pink Capri pants) to be separated from his testicles, the better to become Fabiola.

You get the picture.

Whatever message playwright Freed may be trying to impart in You, Nero remains fairly hidden under the gags, which come with machinegun-fire swiftness, hits and misses divided pretty much evenly. The performances, under Sharon Ott’s direction, are far from subtle, but they are funny indeed, beginning with Danny Scheie’s deliciously campy Nero, Lori Larsen’s marvelously vampy Agrippina, and Caralyn Kozlowski’s wonderfully glammy Poppaea. SCR legends Hal Landon, Jr. and Richard Doyle do their accustomed fine (and amusing) work in a trio of roles each, ranging from eunuchs to playwrights to characters in drag.  John Vickery’s resonant voice, commanding stage presence, and classical resumé make Scribonius the lone figure of dignity in a world filled with wackiness, personified by the nine or ten characters brought to outrageous life by SCR’s secret comedy weapon Kasey Mahaffy, brilliant once again.  Ensemble members Angelle Buffet and Marisa Hampton portray luscious slave girls and Christopher Crawford is an equally luscious slave boy.

South Coast Rep’s design team once again prove themselves at the top of their craft, beginning with scenic designer Erik Flatmo’s colorful Roman steps and columns and Paloma H. Young’s snazzy costumes, which mix historical accuracy with imagination and flair. Peter Maradudin’s lighting design and Stephen LeGrand and Eric Drew Feldman’s original music and sound design are equally fine.

Though more silly than sophisticated, and more than a tad too long, You, Nero’s multitude of gags and hilariously over-the-top performances kept me entertained, and proved a helpful reminder that the 21st Century does not have the market on inept, despotic leaders.  1st Century Rome may have had the most incompetent and tyrannical of them all. Who me?  Yes, you, Nero, you.

South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

–Steven Stanley
January 11, 2009
Photos: Henry DiRocco

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