BRITANNICUS: Stately yet steamy.
According to legend, Nero fiddled while Rome burned. In Racine’s Britannicus, as rendered by American Repertory Theatre (at the Loeb Drama Center through February 11), he plays an insistent electric guitar and Rome but simmers in lustful intrigue as the young ruler’s heart blackens. In outgoing artistic director Robert Woodruff’s stately yet steamy, highly stylized production, the talky 17th-century French tragedy — in dramaturg Gideon Lester’s words “a triple mirror, reflecting both forward and backward from its own historical moment” — comes to crackling life, its ember of an emperor kicked back and forth between variously vicious advisers until he flares up and crumbles.
Whatever Harvard University thinks of Woodruff’s international vision for the company he has headed for five years, he’s a superb director, his productions like drifting Brechtian collages. And there may be no harder test of a stage man’s mettle than Racine’s classical, cautionary tragedies — this one was written as a warning to still-sunny Sun King Louis XIV not to go the way of Nero, whose reign, following the dueling-adolescent events of Britannicus, degenerated into one of dilettantism and sado-masochistic cruelty. The French author’s plays are written in long, rationally reasoned speeches that belie their operatic emotion — though British poet C.H. Sisson’s 1987 translation is both lyrical and muscular.
Woodruff’s staging of the seldom-produced work — a flop from its 1669 get-go — is formal yet never static, its trajectory aided by jangling, interposed musical styles and layers of contemporary paranoia. Nero is not only a guitarist but also a filmmaker whose cameras — not to mention human spies — are everywhere, magnifying the fear the budding tyrant engenders. And there is furtive activity, some of it incestuous, in every cranny of set designer Riccardo Hernandez’s near-transparent, contemporarily furnished set: an airy triptych of public space bookended by cluttered bedrooms, one for Nero that looks like a frat-house lair, a neater one for his domineering mother, Agrippina. Notably essayed in the late 1990s by Diana Rigg, she’s played here with snarling relish by multiple Obie winner Joan MacIntosh. In her low-cut aging-floozy wardrobe, MacIntosh may look like Ivana Trump, but she’s clearly the Donald.
The play is set early in Nero’s rule — an unlikely happenstance engineered by Agrippina, who married her uncle, the emperor Claudius, and got him to adopt her son, setting the youth above the emperor’s own son, Britannicus. She clinched Nero’s ascendancy by getting him married to Claudius’s daughter, Octavia, before poisoning the stuttering narrator of I, Claudius so he couldn’t reverse himself. Octavia does not appear in the play, but she does in this production, her “shadow” taking the form of mournful mezzo-soprano Megan Roth, who, spewing gorgeous arias, wanders the palace like the first Mrs. Rochester on sedatives.
As the piece opens, Nero, tired of Octavia and anxious to gnaw away the Oedipal apron strings, has ordered the nocturnal abduction of Britannicus’s sweetheart, Junia — in the person of Merritt Janson a punk-coiffed beauty in dotted underpants, bound to a chair on casters. Agrippina, who brokered the betrothal of Junia to Britannicus, is displeased. Indeed, this scheming dictator by proxy is displeased by anything her son does without her express command and is agitated into a fag-puffing frenzy by the way in which her hand-picked tutors for him, the philosopher Seneca and the old soldier Burrhus, have replaced her as his Dick Cheney. As the action plays out, we see the inchoate if demanding Nero jerked about by influential elders until it seems certain his actions, for good or ill, will be determined by whichever power-hungry guide gets to push his buttons last.
But at the center of the play’s Machiavellian goings-on are a pair of innocents, Britannicus and Junia. Nero is barely out of adolescence, and Alfredo Narciso — whose first on-stage act is to take a shower, anointing himself with the contents of a beer bottle — brings to him a canny combination of sensual insolence and mama’s-boy insecurity. But he’s no innocent. By contrast, Kevin O’Donnell’s Britannicus is wrenchingly if belligerently vulnerable. His scenes with Junia — which include the painful interview in which, knowing Nero to be eavesdropping, she fears to show her loyalty — are like high-school lovers’ spats: full of the misery of first-time heartbreak. Janson’s Junia, snatched by Nero’s guards from her boudoir in the middle of the night, must play out the drama in a 21st-century teen’s “negligee”: a sweatshirt and athletic socks. And the actress is made more, rather than less, disarming by a slight lisp. Her expressive face, caught in looming triplicate by Nero’s camera, is like a deer’s frozen in the headlights of power.