Theater Review: You, Nero

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Amy Freed's heavily camped-up satire on ancient Rome, accompanied by an insubstantial discourse on the place of writers in society, is badly served by a production that's strong on looks and energy but short on performance. It's a major disappointment from such a well-regarded playwright as South Coast Rep favorite Freed, for whom this is the fourth commission.

The energetically professional if forced and generally unfunny script -- littered with puns and references to popular culture from Greek and Roman times to the present -- provides a huge, Zero Mostel type of opportunity for the central character, a fictional playwright named Scribonius (John Vickery), who is onstage for the entire 2 1/4 hours as narrator, commentator and participant.

Although Vickery shows impressive flashes of presence, eloquence and even a gifted comedian's sense of irony, his is an uneven, often desultory performance. While Vickery manages to plow through the material and maintain a multidimensional presence, the other leads -- Danny Scheie as Nero, Lori Larsen as Agrippina and Caralyn Kozlowski as Poppaea -- flail wildly about in a series of mugging, posing escapades, including a few snatches of song and poetry, that only occasionally catch fire. Together with a surprising lack of timing, these unfocused performances verge uncomfortably on the feel of a high school production.

And the extravagant homophobic and misogynistic tinges to the proceedings -- though they might be a legitimate reflection of historical fact and the predatory nature of Nero's Rome -- nevertheless feel out of place in a co-production, especially with the (presumably) politically correct Berkeley Repertory Theatre. At the very least, the unbalanced stereotyping of the central roles of Nero and Young Nero/Fabiolo (Kasey Mahaffy) seem like lazily contrived devices.

Erik Flatmo's colorful, versatile and impressively configurable sets provide the perfect setting for Freed's bawdy romp, but Paloma H. Young uses her costume budget to good effect mostly for minor characters (she does wonders with lame and tigers' masks) while the major players are stuck with tired wispy things, though Kozlowski is given the opportunity to strut her stuff in a variety of sexually suggestive bindings.

Filing out at the end, one playgoer was overheard to say, "That was the kind of play you need to see more than once to get it all." If such an intellectual response turns out to be a prevailing word-of-mouth sentiment, that and whispers about the sexual innuendos and mildly outrageous carryings-on might enable South Coast Rep to enjoy good sales.

Venue: Julianne Argyros Stage, Costa Mesa, Calif. (Through Jan. 25)
Cast: John Vickery, Danny Scheie, Caralyn Kozlowski, Lori Larsen, Kasey Mahaffy
Presented by: South Coast Repertory
Playwright: Amy Freed
Director: Sharon Ott
Set designer: Erik Flatmo
Costume designer: Paloma H. Young
Lightning designer: Peter Maradudin
Original music/sound designers: Stephen LeGrand and Eric Drew Feldman
Dramaturg: John Glore
Production manager: Joshua Marchesi
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