Was it a coincidence that Berkeley Rep’s “You, Nero” premiered on the same night that American Idol reached its frenzied pitch season finale?
While Kris Allen wowed the crowd and Dick Cheney insisted that America is above the law, Danny Scheie wowed his theater audience as the Roman emperor Nero, who stages a high voltage arena-rock concert to distract the masses from his personal conviction that he, Nero, is above the law.
Amy Freed’s ‘You, Nero” is a rapturous farce of the hedonistic excesses of the Roman Empire, the preposterous hyperbolics of Theater People and the horrific corruption of The Nero administration.
Freed has written a number of comedies which play with historic subjects including "The Beard of Avon" (about Shakespeare) and “Restoration Comedy” – a spoof of the genre. (And she's married to Chron film critic Mick LaSalle, by the by.)
Here, she looks at the strange truth that the Emperor Nero was known, both as an extravagant tyrant and as a artistic type; a man who practiced dismemberment, matricide and the performing arts.
It’s hard to imagine that the role was written for anyone but Danny Scheie, who is a scream as a flamboyantly flaming megalomaniacal sociopath. His Nero is a blood-thirsty and yet also star-struck drama queen. Hence he was known, (and this part is true) as the emperor “who fiddled while Rome burned."
Gushing with anachronistic hilarity and brimming with hodgepodge, Freed creates an “I, Claudius” meets “A Chorus Line,” starring Harvey Fierstein as Nero.
Scheie’s Nero is not content to sing, dance and emote, rack up mistresses and kill family members. He is interested in, as we now call it, legacy building. And, like certain administration’s with a bad rep, he sets out to create a revisionist myth – a play that will set the record rosy.
He hires an a playwright -- Jeff McCarthy as the morally sturdy Scribonius – to write his bio drama, a PR stunt to bolster his approval ratings. Scribonius uses the task to appeal to Nero’s better angels, rer-writing Nero to be a benevolent and beloved leader in the hope that life will imitate art.
But Scribonius’ belief that theater has the power to awaken virtue falls flat on its face again and again. Even though Nero’s monster just wants to be loved (a la Jon Lovitz as Harvey Fierstein), he can’t quit his murderous bad habits.
He confronts the psycho-sexual issues with his mother (played by Lori Larsen) wondering, “is this the catharsis they talk about?” He castrates his favorite actor (Kasey Mahaffy as a fey, affected heart-throb) to recreate his current mistress. Ultimately, he refuses this moral makeover.
Director Sharon Ott creates an ultra-campy travesty that gyrates with ludicrousness and true wit, pointing a knowing finger at our own razzle-blinded times.