‘Nero/Pseudo’ at WSC Avant Bard at Fort Fringe

Celebrities are the new royalty; rock stars are the new idols. With bacchanalian excesses on both sides of the equation, is it any wonder that someone decided to make the comparison literal? In the new musical Nero/Pseudo, WSC Avant Bard make a daring, punk rock attempt at setting the question to music. And like the best punk, Nero/Pseudo is a lot of fun, more than a little bit trashy, and – to be honest – messy.

Bradley Foster Smith (Pontus). Photo by Teresa Wood.
Bradley Foster Smith (Pontus). Photo by Teresa Wood.

Nero/Pseudo follows the travails of the freed slave Pontus (Bradley Foster Smith), a dead-ringer for the deceased Emperor Nero. Pontus looks like Nero, but in a world where fame and power are interchangeable, it’s more important that he sings and plays the guitar just like the arts-loving Nero did. The opportunistic taverna keeper Chrysis (Gillian Shelly) sees a chance to keep her taverna open in the face of censors empowered by the emperor’s death. Enlisting the actor Stratocles (Lee Liebeskind) as a conspirator, Chrysis sets a plan in motion to turn Pontus into a replacement Nero. Tragedy ensues.

Based loosely on a historical episode in Tacitus, Richard Byrne’s Nero/Pseudo melds the excesses of classical Greece, Imperial Rome, and late 60s glam rock. It’s a strange combination, but damned if it doesn’t work. For this new musical, Byrne recruited Jim Elkington (The Zincs, numerous collaborations) and Jon Langford (The Mekons, The Three Johns, and The Waco Brothers) to establish some rock-and-roll bonafides. The three have assembled something that’s shades of Jesus Christ Superstar and Hedwig and the Angry Inch, all haunted by the ghost of David Bowie – and by Bowie’s back catalog. House band Suckled by Wolves (John-Michael d’Haviland, Jason Wilson, Jaime Ibacache, Harold Walbert) play their way through classic rock standards and the new material with aplomb. And if the new pieces sound suspiciously like the old (Bowie’s “Soul Love”) the references are made with a wink and a nod.

The set, by Scenic Designer Joseph B. Musumeci, Jr., tightropes on the fine line between tacky and fabulous, glitzy and chintzy. It’s taverna-as-70s nightclub, complete with spangled curtains and lava lamps on every table. As fun as the set may be, Elizabeth Ennis’ costumes may be even more effective at world-building, spanning a range from glam-as-Greek to Greek-as-glam. As soon as the characters hit the stage, Ennis’ costumes provides a quick roadmap of where the production is headed. With a concept this strange, it’s nice to be able to take a look around the space and say, “Yeah, I can see that.”

As Chrysis, Gillian Shelly has the task of keeping the whole plot moving. And move it she does – Shelly’s grasping, manipulative optimism is a joy to watch, and it’s easy to believe that the rest of the cast has no better option than to fall under her sway. Lee Liebeskind’s Stratocles takes the brunt of that scheming, and as a result, Liebeskind has the opportunity to build the most complex characterization in the play. His Stratocles is alternately nostalgic and pragmatic, constantly grounding the rest of the cast in the reality of their situation and most painfully seduced by a chance at something better.

As the pseudo-Nero of the piece, Bradley Foster Smith has two great gifts that carry the show, aside from looking appropriately strung out in his underwear. The first is that his Pontus believably falls under the spell of Nero’s persona. Smith is both entranced and repulsed by the idea of Nero, and eventually by his own play-acting. The second gift is the ability to flip a switch on his charisma. Performing, as either Pontus or Nero, Smith is radiant; a little bit Bowie, a little bit Jagger. But off-stage, Pontus seems lost and unfocused, unable to string together a real identity or even a focused bit of stage action.

It’s that lack of focus, though, that shows the cracks in the foundation of Nero/Pseudo. At times it seems that the production spent so much time focusing on Pontus-as-Nero that it doesn’t know what to do with Pontus himself. It’s hard to tell, though, whether the fault lies with Smith, Byrne’s script, or Patrick Pearson’s directing. If it were an isolated incident it would be easy to dismiss, but that’s not the case. Whole scenes seem out of place – a flashback post-intermission contains one of the play’s catchiest numbers, but it’s also a jarring transition into a scene with no real narrative payoff. The final scene is equally odd, with a few great speeches muddled by a sense of “How did we get here and why are we watching this?” Many of the show’s songs feel like they’re occurring merely because it’s been too long since the last song instead of for a solid reason.

The production also has an uncertain relationship with its audience. At the top of the show, Chrysis asks the audience if anyone wants to join the band on stage to sing a song. Or does she? It’s too early in the piece to tell if the cast is actually expecting someone to take them up on the offer, and so we’re just left hanging. At “Nero’s” big amphitheatre performance the audience is led not once but twice in “making some noise” for the false emperor, neither of which actually leads into his appearance. It’s another false start and spectacular waste of audience trust good-will. Picking up the slack as Nero’s fans are ensemble members Ryan Alan Jones, Alani Kravitz, and Brian McDermott. These talented, energetic young actors do a great job of filling out the world of Nero/Pseudo, but they’re put in an awkward position as audience surrogates. Either trust the audience enough to fully bring them in to the experience or let the fourth wall stand and make the world feel fully cohesive. Doing both rarely pays off.

(Left to right): Lee Liebeskind (Stratocles) and Gillian Shelly (Chrysis). Photo by Teresa Wood.
(Left to right): Lee Liebeskind (Stratocles) and Gillian Shelly (Chrysis). Photo by Teresa Wood.

At the end of the day, Nero/Pseudo feels like a first draft: an incredibly strong, extremely promising, and very entertaining first draft. That’s thinking of it as a piece of drama, of course. As a spectacle, a rock concert, a chance to see talented actors kick ass and take names? I’d love an encore.

Running Time: One hour and 45 minutes, with a ten-minute intermission.

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Nero/Pseudo plays through June 1, 2014 at The Shop at Fort Fringe – 607 New York Avenue, NW, n Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the box office at (703)418-4808, or purchase them online.


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