When in Rome: ‘Nero’ is a Short-Lived Pleasure

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Courtesy of South Coast Repertory
Courtesy of South Coast Repertory
“You, Nero” impresses with its theatrics, but its lack of flow prevents the play from reaching its full impact.
When Nero, the last emperor of Rome, realized that he has a public relations problem, he summoned Scribonius to write a play that would turn the public opinion of him around immediately. What followed is Amy Freed’s “You, Nero,” an eye-pleasing spectacle about the events in Nero’s palace during the declining years of the Roman Empire as extravagant as the Roman Coliseum itself.
The all-stars of this artistic team made the production a joy to watch and listen to. The set design was clever and helped make the scene transitions clean and smooth. The costume design’s combination of Roman clothing with Las Vegas show costume worked well with the show’s material and gave the actors a little more visual “pop.”
The production’s background music and sound effects ran beautifully throughout the entire theater. Every cue seemed to make it right on time and it was all woven together flawlessly. There were many great moments scattered within the production that made reference to our pop culture. For example, the wave was being done in the middle of the Roman Coliseum and Nero creates an American Idol-like competition where one of the contestants comes on with a Sanjaya “ponytail.”
A great design moment for the show was the first scene, held in a coliseum where Scribonius and his friend Batheticus watch someone being killed on the stage, while blood squirts onto Batheticus’ face and costume. It worked flawlessly and provided ample laughs for the audience.
The script is simple enough for anyone to follow and enjoy but is dense enough to offer even more to the theater connoisseur. A prime example of this is Freed’s reference to Aristotle’s “Poetics.”
When Nero watches the story of his life on stage, he panics when he feels something wet under his eyes. After he later learns that those are tears caused by the performance, he suddenly screams in excitement, “Oh my god, did I feel dramatic catharsis? I’ve never felt that before, I mean I’ve faked it but never really … ” The audience laughed at Nero’s lack of emotion and those who are familiar with Aristotle’s text got an extra laugh to accompany the initial one.
Although the script provides enough for both the casual and the more serious theatergoer, one has to make an effort to catch all of the little intricacies of the script. This is due to the production’s lack of flow.
The play is great in chunks but it never allows itself to build a full head of steam to truly hit the audience. It seemed that as soon as the show was about to truly grab the audience and run away with it, the flow was interrupted by a one-liner that got a laugh but killed the moment. This lack of flow did nothing to help the tendency for some of the actors to overact.
Although the show itself is a ham, it doesn’t quite require the amount of over-the-top actions that were put forth by some of the cast. This isn’t to take away from a great performance by Danny Scheie as the title character, perhaps the greatest offenders being Poppaea (Caralyn Kozlowski) and Agrippina (Lori Larsen).
Despite the show’s flaws, there are plenty of reasons to see this solid show. It includes talent from two of UC Irvine’s own – third-year drama graduate director Erin McBride Africa serves as the assistant to the director and second-year drama major Marisa Hampton is a part of the ensemble cast. If for no other reason, it is worth it to see the show to expose yourself to the Tony award-winning South Coast Repertory Theater, as it has been the home for Richard Greenberg premieres.

“You, Nero” runs at the South Coast Repertory until Jan. 25.

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