YOU NERO a Ribald, Rollicking Roman Comedy

(l to r) Danny Scheie and Kasey Mahaffy star in the world premiere of You, Nero, a new comedy by Pulitzer Prize-nominee Amy Freed at Berkeley Rep.Photographer: Henry DiRocco

YOU, NERO, written by Amy Freed, directed by Sharon Ott. Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA 94704.510-647-2949 or (World premiere production co-produced with South Coast Repertory Theatre)

May 15–June 28, 2009


There is a lot to praise in Berkeley Rep’s production of YOU NERO by Amy Freed. First there is Danny Scheie at his best flouncing around in tight fitting leopard-print shorts portraying the decadent Nero, the Roman who fiddled while Rome burned, with such panache that you are willing forgive his (both Nero and Danny) excesses. Then there is the story line that is a hilarious mixture of marvelous convoluted ancient history that is chock full of witty/cutting dialog reminiscent of the brilliant lines in the A.C.T. staging of The Beard of Avon,, and Cal Shake’s version of Restoration Comedy. Throw in Sharon Ott’s fast paced direction and the superb use of slap-stick perfectly acted by a top notch cast adorned in attractive, sexy revealing costumes (Paloma H. Young) on Eric Flatmo’s superb monochromatic set makes this a not to be missed production. However, the two hour and 10 minute running time, especially the 10 minute hokey American Idol ending needs trimming.

This production is the recipient of an Edgerton Foundation New American Plays Award and is a combined project of the South Coast Repertory Theatre where it premiered in January. The reviews were mostly favorable; four of the original cast and director Ott remain and there has been trimming. Freed has turned Nero into a semi-loveable monster even though he sleeps with his mother Agrippa (Lori Larsen), created a eunuch of the handsome Fabiola (Kasey Mahaffy), has his wife killed and has the same plans for his mistress Poppaea (Susannah Schulman). If anyone could use a good PR man it is Nero and he selects a second rate author Scribonius (Jeff McCarthy) for the job. Scribonius, who has been reduced to “writing” pornographic shows for mimes, accepts the commission, telling the audience he hopes to convert Nero into a nice guy in the process. Heaven help Scribonius if he fails. McCarthy does more than a serviceable job in the difficult role of acting as a sounding board for Scheie’s antics while carrying Freed’s philosophical ideas about playwrights and theater as a social force.

Your interest will occasionally wane but not for long. The evening is a non-stop bit of hilarity both in action and in words that are at times simultaneously satiric, ribald and almost thoughtful. Lori Larsen makes Agrippa’s justification for her sexual liaison with Nero plausible without a shred of guilt. Now that’s difficult. Sexy, svelte Susannah Schulman’s seduction of Scribonius is a libidinous masterpiece. Kasey Mahaffy’s transformation from Fabiolo’s male to female demeanor after his sex change (read castration) does not miss a beat to the delight of the omni sexual Nero. Richard Doyle and Mike McShane are terrific in their multiple roles including being eunuchs, Roman Senators, the three Fury’s and others.

Even though the opening paragraph suggests otherwise, because it is Danny Scheie’s evening, he probably deserves his chance to win the Roman version of American Idol for the outrageous rock star finale with the stage walls separating as Rome burns (Lighting design by Peter Maradudin) and Nero prances up an down the stairs ending the evening with the burst of fire we all knew would come.

Kedar K. Adour, MD

Courtesy of