Every tyrant has his eccentricities, but it's been alleged that Roman emperor Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus was crazier than most. Historical accounts paint Nero as a loutish, potbellied man with extravagant tastes, known for killing indiscriminately just to ensure his own claim to power. Even as a 2,000-year-old historical figure, he makes a terrific muse. Playwright Amy Freed proves as much in her new comedy You, Nero, now playing at Berkeley Repertory Theater. It's a joyous satire of a sadistic regime, told from the point of view of Scribonius (Jeff McCarthy), a has-been dramaturge who gets hired to write the emperor's biopic. With this setup, Freed takes an absolutely harrowing story (that of an emperor who killed his mother, wife, adoptive brother, and step-father, and partied down in his palace while the rest of Rome crumbled), and makes it funny.
Besides having a storyline with built-in complications, You, Nero succeeds on the power of its title character. Actor Danny Scheie is nothing short of brilliant as the profligate ruler. We hear about him from other characters before we see him, and the gossip keeps escalating: First, Nero bans tragedy from Rome, then he mounts a self-aggrandizing arts festival ("Neronica") and erects a Ministry of Taste on the site of a former orphanage. His palace, with its tiled floors and Ionic columns, is made into a kind of Roman Emerald City. Thus, Nero might produce a bit of cognitive dissonance when he finally surfaces: Short, paunchy, effeminate, plagued by an Oedipal complex, temperamental (he kills a slave for breathing the wrong way), enthusiastic but hugely inept (he has to enlist Scribonius to write his own panegyric), and, above all, decadent. Like a bitchy teenage girl, he's someone with a lot of spiteful behaviors who nonetheless endears himself to his audience. Freed deserves a lot of credit for taking the real Nero and amplifying all his character traits, but it's Scheie's interpretation that really brings the script to life.
The characters who surround Nero are all crazy too, though none of them have quite the same magnetism. Scribonius is the play's Woody Allen, though McCarthy makes him a little more square than he has to be. Nero's mother Agrippina (Lori Larsen) looks like a consummate cougar, though even she couldn't hold a candle to Nero's mistress Poppaea, played with just the right mix of coquettishness and naiveté by actress Susannah Shulman. With so many slapstick characters and such self-consciously clever writing, it's no surprise that You, Nero devolves into camp around the middle of the second act. But there's definitely a payoff at the end.
As for taking liberties with source material, You, Nero isn't the only game in town. California Shakespeare Theater kicks off its summer season with an imaginative interpretation of Romeo and Juliet, directed by Jonathan Moscone. This production stays true to the original script, which makes it a lot longer and heavier than most versions. But Moscone had the insight to use contemporary sets and costumes: Teenagers skulk around the stage listening to iPods, and the backdrop is a splashy graffiti wall. Romeo and Juliet opens with a gang fight between the Montagues and Capulets, during which one member swoops in on a skateboard, while another takes cell phone pictures of the carnage. Fast-paced and brutal, this scene sets the tenor for a play that's as much about violence as it is about romance.
Aside from juxtaposing Shakespeare's unadulterated script with modern aesthetic elements, Moscone brings a rather unusual cast to this production. Red-haired Sarah Nealis makes Juliet giddier and a little brattier than the script might normally call for, though she's also quite convincing as a fourteen-year-old girl. Alex Morf's Romeo is a sensitive brooder and kind of a sissy, while Liam Vincent is downright slimy as rival suitor Paris. But the real stars here are Dan Hiatt, who plays Friar Lawrence as kind of a washed-up hippie or cannabis club owner; Catherine Castellanos, whose sassy, no-nonsense Nurse defies expectations; and, above all, Jud Williford, who steals the show as Mercutio. These actors give the play more depth by making the character relationships seem real.
It's a combination of great casting and deft stage direction that allow Moscone to wring all the dramatic tension out of this play. Early on, he establishes a fraught relationship between Mercutio and Romeo, which falls somewhere between homoeroticism and brotherly love — and justifies Romeo's rash decision to slay his mistress' cousin Tybalt, to avenge Mercutio's death. Nealis' doe eyes and puerile expressions make her a sympathetic Juliet, and Hiatt's Friar Lawrence seems like the kind of well-intentioned guy who would muck things up, then try to rationalize everyone's death in the end. Ironically, the only thing wanting in this production is a little more chemistry between Romeo and Juliet. Their balcony scene pales in comparison to the subsequent brawl between Tybalt, Romeo, and Mercutio, which ends with Romeo bludgeoning Tybalt in a carnal rage. Taken in context, it's the play's real love scene.