The Playgoer: SF Dispatch II

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Saturday, February 18, 2006

SF Dispatch II

Ok, I'm back in NYC now, but just to round out my playgoing journal from last weekend...

My hosts from Staged Readings took me to a first preview(!) of the new play at the notable Magic Theatre, a small company going back to the 60s and most famously associated with the young (and now older) Sam Shepard. Keeping their mission of new plays alive, they are launching an ambitious 3-play "rep" for the next two months. You'll probably be hearing more about this in the press, since the new artistic director, Chris Smith, is shrewdly arranging weekends where people--press or other regional companies--can come see all three, "Louisville-style."

So first up was by Steven Sater, and it's called Nero: Another Golden Rome. My first question to my friend Karen on the way to the theatre was: "It's not really about Rome, is it?" Well, two and half long hours later, I could confirm that it indeed is. Very much so. At first I was intrigued by Melpomene Katakalos's "circus maximus" of a set--an open stage full of ladders and lanterns, a fun-looking playpen for some antiquity-style decadence. But once I got an earful of Sater's dense prose-poetry, fun didn't seem anywhere in sight. I consider myself a fairly educated guy. And if someone says a play is a "history lesson" I often line right up for a ticket! But Sater's Nero is neither history nor modern political allegory. He seems genuinely preoccupied with these particular characters (Nero, his mom-from-hell Agrippina, prettyboy stepbrother Brittanicus, and tutor the old poet Seneca). This is the kind of work one feels unqualified to judge without reading. Then again, what does that say about it as a play?

Now I don't want to abuse the hospitality extended in allowing me to peek in at a first preview and for all I know Mr Sater's text may be a work in progress. (I believe it opens tonight, so you can check the bay area papers the next two days to see more "official" responses.) And for what it's worth, the Magic's production of this shapeless piece seemed in rather fine shape for a first night. All that ran through my head, though, was one word: "Why?" Why tell this story now? What do Nero & co. uniquely offer us today that other characters don't? Sater seems to relish in the overfed and narcissistic (yes, ol' Narcissus is a character, too) hangover of this mighty empire about to burn. But there seems no judgment in the text against that. Is it too busy enjoying decadence to make us think about it?

Oh, did I mention the chief draw of the play was "music by Duncan Sheik"? This artsy-pop meister is also collaborating with Sater on a musical of Wedekind's Spring Awakening at the Atlantic Theatre Company later this spring. I don't know what to hope for from that, but Sheik's contribution here is limited to just some cabaret interludes. Music in no way infuses this play, which is a shame since its only chance at making a connection would be through creating an entrancing sensorama, something Beth Miles's direction (in previews, at least) barely hinted at. I did enjoy, though, the giddily eerie tap dance brought upon Brittanicus when he succumbs to Nero's poison.

A funny coincidence for me personally was that last weekend I also happened to be studying Racine's Brittanicus. Of course, that 17th century French poet is notorious today for his static rhyming alexandrine couplets, declaimed by stiff toga-draped classical heroes. Who knew a hip contemporary writer could create something less exciting! At least Racine wrote in an idiom of his own age and, by making the characters timeless, explored in a distilled form the depths of love, courage, and fear. Sater's "update", by aiming for something vaguely classical in sound yet sexily modern in dress, ends up as opaque as a faded Roman fresco.

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