“You, Nero” is a historical farce from Arena Stage‘s resident playwright Amy Freed. Having been staged before on the west coast, Arena took this zany confection and mounted a colorful production in Fichandler’s in-the-round stage.

Integral to the production is the casting of Danny Scheie as the impish Nero, who fully inhabits the role and draws in your empathy even while making clear his character’s demented schemes.

The story doesn’t offer a clear protagonist, in spite of Nero’s sheer cuteness. Our narrator is the playwright Scribonius. While his morals make him the only character to wrestle with ethical dilemmas – such as, say, whether killing your mom is a bad thing – he remains distant from both the audience and his fellow Romans. In a comedy this dependent on schtick, his introspection is overshadowed by fear, lust, and anguish.

Scribonius is played by Jeff McCarthy, who I had seen years ago in Urinetown (the play, not the town), where he was pitch-perfect as Officer Lockstock. In “You, Nero” I kept visualizing the playwright typing out the words he spoke, an obstacle to pure escapism.

The other characters are all trotted out in the first act, successfully presented in broad strokes with costumes (by Gabriel Berry) to match.

Washington favorite Nancy Robinette plays Nero’s mother Agrippina. I never tire of her comic perfection. Her daffy – and uncomfortably excessive – motherly love for Nero flows uninterrupted into her scheming plans for murder and manipulation.

Another crucial casting is Poppaea (Susannah Schulman) and her manly mirror image Fabiolo (Kasey Mahaffy). Their twisted fates leave us guessing what awaits after intermission. But neither one gets to flourish in the second act, and Fabiolo’s meek acceptance of his fate is especially disappointing.

What act two offers is two distinctly different directions. The first is when Scribonius uses his hagiographic script to trick Nero into fearing his fate if he carries out his murderous mission. I thought this was the first moment the theatre came alive and the audience came aboard and joined the characters’ world. But it was short-lived, as the device was tossed aside when Nero revealed his conversion to be mere acting.

The second set-piece was Nero’s transformation into a celebrity, complete with his name in lights. But the modern references pushed me over the edge; I couldn’t embrace the cheap shots at cultural kitsch. The script had one foot in modern pop culture, and the other in ancient tragedies, and was at home in neither.

As situation comedies go, give Arena credit for making the most of a rich milieu and sharing with us the joys of the emperor as diva. If only Nero could have been pitted more squarely against Scribonius. Nero may have had all of Rome at his disposal, but Scribonius clearly had the power of the playwright behind him, and in a play, well, in this play, his arsenal was not fully ready.

Roman Shenanigans at Arena Stage

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