“You, Nero” is the second play to make it onto an Arena stage this fall courtesy of the company’s pioneering resident playwright program; Karen Zacarias’s “The Book Club Play” was the first. By featuring both so prominently in its season, Arena is pushing new American play development ever more forcefully to the forefront of its agenda, much as Signature Theatre has over the past several seasons challenged its audience with a series of musical commissions yielding a mix of exhilarating and lukewarm results.
That’s the tricky nature of play-building. And one hopes that dedicated Arena playgoers will appreciate both the adventure the company is on and the pleasures of Freed’s academic burlesque. As in her earlier play, “The Beard of Avon,” in which she lampooned the Oxfordians by postulating that Shakespeare’s plays were written by a veritable posse of Elizabethan notables — including Elizabeth I — “You, Nero” places the conjecture over historical events squarely in the context of modern public sentiment. (As with accounts of the life of Shakespeare, chronicles of the exploits of emperor Nero are highly speculative.)
The decadent Nero is unpopular with the intelligentsia, having banned the playing of tragedy in favor of lightweight entertainment such as chariot races and gladiator death matches — the 1st century’s answer to Bravo TV’s lineup. “The adrenaline that comes of knowing you’re about to see real life and death — not some quaint imagined act,” grudgingly marvels the out-of-work actor Batheticus, played by the priceless Laurence O’Dwyer, as he sits through a bloodbath at the Hippodrome, hilariously orchestrated by set designer James Noone and the technical team, with severed hands and legs flying up from a central pit. (A later gag, in which a large reptile torments a member of a proselytizing religion, is a nifty use of anachronism.)
Aware that the unappetizing shenanigans at his court, such as his dalliance with the conniving Poppaea (Susannah Schulman), are not endearing him to anyone, Nero decides that a more conventional drama might be used to burnish his reputation. So he recruits a terrified, down-in-the-mouth dramatist, one Scribonius of Carthage (Jeff McCarthy, who intrepidly assumed the role after Marc Vietor left during previews), to compose a hagiographic piece about him for an upcoming arts festival.
Playwrights these days seem entranced by the idea of political will being forced on art: Is it a coincidence that the play just across Arena’s main corridor, Bill Cain’s Shakespearean fantasia “Equivocation,” also deals with a dramatist pressured to fabricate events to prop up a ruler’s image? In the more serendipitous “You, Nero,” it’s the unintended consequences of the danger in which the writer is placed that has the ironic payoff. Scribonius decides that the way to cast Nero in a sympathetic light is to invent tragedy’s modern handmaiden, naturalism: He shows the emperor a scene he’s written in which Nero as a boy is mentally tortured and lasciviously set upon by his mother Agrippina (Nancy Robinette, in the wholly suitable countenance of living, breathing gargoyle).