FADE IN: DARKNESS.
Water slaps against the stripped naked Nero as he takes a shower on one side of the minimalist stage. Octavia’s haunting voice quivers in the background. Two modern yellow couches illuminate the dark stage, setting the suspenseful tone of the American Repertory Theatre production of Jean Racine’s seventeenth-century play “Britannicus.” Oddly, this disconcerting, juicy and scandalous story is underappreciated by Hollywood. So, I will welcome you to the darkness of Emperor Nero’s capricious world.
BREAKDOWNS OF THE MAJOR CHARACTERS
Considered one the cruelest Roman Emperors, Nero is a mad tyrant who feels threatened by his brother Britannicus. Actor Alfredo Narcisco successfully portrays him as a dark creature. Yet, Nero is a pathetic weak wimp who longs to break his bonds from his controlling mother. Instead of elegantly strumming a lyre, Director Robert Woodruff has Nero rebelliously pounding an electric guitar throughout the play.
Renowned as one of the most manipulative and most powerful women in Roman history, Nero’s dominating mother, Agrippina, is a creature who is fueled by her lust for power. She is constantly plotting. Togas are thrown-away in Woodruff’s production. Actress Joan MacIntosh wears a dangerously-white modern suit.
Junia is kidnapped by Nero, who sees her marriage to Britannicus as a threat to his power. She and Britannicus are the only innocent characters in the play. It takes a brilliant actress like Merritt Janson to play the emotional draining and vulnerable role of Junia.
Britannicus is Nero’s brother. He is a romantic creature. Actor Kevin O’Donnel portrays Britannicus with tremendous sensitivity. His expressions of passion towards Junia are breathtaking and are the most treasured and emotional moments of the play. He impeccably delivers Racine’s poetic dialogue with captivating rhythm and style. Nothing is considered safe; he is poisoned by his brother, Nero.
A monstrous banner with an adapted quote from the Bush Administration, “EMPIRE CREATES ITS OWN REALITY,” loudly invades the backdrop. Director Robert Woodruff interprets Racine’s “Brittanicus” as a metaphor of contemporary American politics, creating a magnificent marriage between the political issues of contemporary times with that of the Roman period. While the layered and intellectual plot of Racine’s historic play is dizzy and complicated, Woodruff magically presents the story with simplicity, clarity and bearable contemporary edginess. The dark plot is symbolic of modern society. The audience leaves the theater cold with chills.
FADE OUT: ABSOLUTE DARKNESS.
A description of the eclectic season at Harvard’s American Repertory Theatre (A.R.T.) can be found at www.amrep.org