Along with all of his centurions and tribunes, a Roman emperor might consider the services of a good editor.
This holds especially true for Nero, he of the historically bad rep and, as portrayed in “Nero/Pseudo” — the sketchy muddle of a rock musical being unveiled by WSC Avant Bard — a virtually impenetrable story. For the show, in its world premiere in downtown D.C.’s Shop at Fort Fringe, is confusing to the maximus.
One thing that’s not certain — and this murkiness is intentional — is whether actor Bradley Foster Smith is playing Nero. His character may actually be, in fact, a guy named Pontus, a Roman slave who has been persuaded by Chrysis (Gillian Shelly), a tavern owner, and Stratocles (Lee Liebeskind), a thespian, to impersonate the emperor after Nero’s purported death.
The conceit of “Nero/Pseudo” is that the gullible masses of Rome so desperately want Nero back that they’ll buy whatever tale they’re told about Pontus, particularly after he dresses up like David Bowie and sings the rock and alternative country numbers by Richard Byrne, Jim Elkington and Jon Langford. This proves, though, to be a slender premise for a nearly two-hour musical. And as the score does little more than offer rather academic commentary, the advance of the plot is difficult to decipher. Some of the melodies — played by a four-man band on Joseph B. Musumeci Jr.’s set of a shabby cabaret — are quite pleasing, such as the tune for the ensemble number, “Pluck Down the Stars.” Still, catchy tunes have only limited success when you can only catch half the garbled lyrics.
This seriously complicates the task of determining what the intentions of “Nero/Pseudo” might be —and one wants very dearly to encourage Byrne, who wrote the book and lyrics, and director Patrick Pearson. As indicated by the success of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” — now achieving Broadway hit status via Neil Patrick Harris and the handiwork of John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask — glam rock offers tantalizing opportunities to mock both our preening celebrities and the fans who lionize them.
In its current form, the show’s elements lack a synchronized tone, so the evening feels wildly erratic. The lengthy speechifying — in language packed with allusions to ancient mythology — is as stiff as the songs are rowdy. One minute, you feel as if you’re sitting in a decent rock-and-roll joint — and the next, at a screening of “Clash of the Titans.” And just when in Act 2 the production finally gets to jumping, courtesy of Shelly singing the feisty “Saturn Returns” and Smith following with a lightning-fast three-song set, the show lapses into another interlude of pontificating about the immortality of art.
Elizabeth Ennis does a decent job on an undoubtedly tiny budget, coming up with costumes that conjure both rock and Rome, even if you wish the get-up for Smith’s emergence as emperor-headliner were a bit more outrageous. Pearson, meanwhile, eggs on the actors to histrionic line readings and, as a result, an audience has little chance to savor any irony that might be lurking in the script. One is left wondering whether the more fertile potential of “Nero/Pseudo” might lie in a musical in which the pseudo Nero simply croons his way through a song cycle at, say, Caesar’s Palace.
book and lyrics by Richard Byrne; music by Jim Elkington and Jon Langford. Directed by Patrick Pearson. Set, Joseph B. Musumeci Jr.; costumes, Elizabeth Ennis; lighting, Joseph R. Walls; sound, Neil McFadden; movement, Sarah Ripper. With Ryan Alan Jones, Alani Kravitz, Brian McDermott. About 1 hour 45 minutes. Tickets, $25-$35. Through June 1 at the Shop at Fort Fringe, 607 New York Avenue NW. Visit wscavantbard.org/tickets or call 866-811-4111.