American theater has excelled at slapstick and spectacle ever since vaudeville showed up at the turn of the 20th century. We haven’t lost our taste for clowning and pageantry, and there’s plenty of both in Arena Stage’s “You, Nero.” They’re just a little more nuanced.
Danny Scheie, who has played the sadistic Roman emperor in three productions of the show (San Francisco, Los Angeles and now D.C.), performs the part with all the campy voices
and winking at the audience of a vaudeville comedian. His act is broad and bold, and smacks of nightly improv, but here’s the secret: The source of the schtick is playwright Amy Freed, not Scheie.
“She writes the timing and the delivery in her punctuation,” he says. Unlike most playwrights, Freed makes her scripts actor-proof through careful notation. “You’re a fool to not pick it up and run with it,” says Scheie, “because it keeps you from making really stupid choices.”
Now for spectacle. Though “You, Nero” (and, let’s face it, a lot of the appeal of ancient Rome) is about decadence, you run into an immediate snag. Regional theater isn’t big on excess. A show without the budget for wine fountains and lines of be-togaed chorus girls can’t hope to compete with our vision of Roman debauchery.
Scheie doesn’t see that as an issue. “Theater is at its most magical when it’s at its roughest. We have to find the bare-bones backstage levers and pulleys and just ask the audience to join in.”
In fact, Arena scaled back on its original vision of the show in service of the script. “There was a lot more singing and dancing and lights and smoke and mirrors for a while that eventually got trimmed out,” Scheie says.
When the plot is as complex and engaging as “You, Nero’s,” spectacle becomes a distraction to viewers (rather than compensating for a play’s weaknesses, as it too often does). So, gone now is the swimming pool scene with dry ice and bathing beauties.
“If there’s a cute guy in a bikini onstage, we don’t care about the discussion of Sophocles,” Scheie says. “We really don’t.”f