Danny Scheie, from left, and Kasey Mahaffy appear in the world premiere of You, Nero. Photo by Henry DiRocco.
By Kimberly Chun
After its extended production of The Lieutenant of Inishmore and now You, Nero, Berkeley Rep is starting to feel like your one-stop spot for chuckle-inducing high jinks. The latest offering aims a little lower, and loftier, than Martin McDonagh’s allegorical gore fest centered on Northern Ireland’s Troubles: Pulitzer-nominated local playwright and Stanford artist-in-residence (and San Francisco Chronicle movie critic Mick LaSalle’s spouse) Amy Freed trains her focus on one of the more notorious rulers of all time, Nero, a pint-sized sociopath who occasionally threatens to overrun Berkeley Rep’s intimate Thrust Stage with his whimsical mayhem and murder.
Danny Schiele brings a crazy-eyed, strutting, tummy-first egotism to his role as Nero as theatrical patron – a perspective that brings to mind that other dictator who fancied himself an artist, Adolf Hitler. We approach the meglomaniac through the prismatic gaze of hack playwright Scribonious (Jeff McCarthy), hired by the emperor to stage a spectacle in tribute to his decadent, violent rule. The catch: politics in imperial court are hell. First Nero’s smothering mistress Poppaea (Susannah Schulman) then his lover-like mother Agrippina (Lori Larsen) must have their say, before the compromised courtiers weigh in with an agenda of their own. Gladiatorial acts of empty but deadly combat morph into an all-too-familiar form of idol worship - **American Idol** style.
Freed’s lampoon of contemporary entertainment tends toward the Borscht Belt, often coming off as broad and brassy as centurion armor, yet she succeeds in drawing cringe-edged laughs with the jokes ala Nero’s ebullient “Another ottoman from the Ottoman Empire!” It helps to have a cast as adept and likeable as this one, with players like Kasey Mahaffy standing out as the cross-dressing castrati Fabiolo.
Through June 28.
Tues., 8 p.m.; Wed., 7 p.m.; Thurs. and Sat., 2 and 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 and 7 p.m.; $13.50-$71
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison, Berkeley