Thursday, January 25, 2007

All in the family

Nero goes electric in Britannicus.

Legend has it that Nero fiddled while Rome burned - but in the ART production of Racine’s Britannicus, he strums a Stratocaster instead. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – and what else would we expect from director Robert Woodruff, the rock star manqué who’s led this theater for half a decade? The ART’s anti-traditionalism is by now a hidebound tradition of its own.

But in this particular case, I have to give props to the props – Woodruff has found a compelling modern setting for this lost classic; for the most part, he makes the creaky ART clichés work. And after the stumbles of Olly’s Prison and Orpheus X, it’s nice to see this battle-scarred director back on track for his swan song (his artistic directorship ended abruptly, and with veiled acrimony, a few weeks ago).

Not that Woodruff has limned the depths of Britannicus; in fact, Racine’s fucked-up family dynamics largely elude the capable cast. But given the difficulties of reviving the play’s static grandeur, the ART doesn’t do half bad (and C.H. Sisson’s translation, though it dodges the problem of Racine’s poetry, does well by his playability). It helps that the stench of rotting empire is wafting so strongly from our own executive branch these days - so strongly, in fact, that Woodruff’s banners proclaiming “Empires Create Their Own Reality” aren’t really required for us to parse the parallel. And at any rate, Britannicus works best when we can forget about the Bushes (who are only elevated, anyway, by association with Nero) and let the play float in an intriguingly open-ended, extended-Brechtian space, with Woodruff doodling around the frame (sometimes to great effect, and sometimes not – as in his opening “the Emperor has no clothes” gambit).

It’s Woodruff’s conceit that the play is about surveillance (which is what gives his update to our security-driven age its resonance). Racine’s plot, loosely drawn from the poisoned well of ancient Rome, focuses on young Nero, who got his mitts on Caesar’s oak leaves through the machinations of mama Agrippina (who offed Uncle Claudius for his sake). But alas, there’s another contendah for the title – Claudius’s own son Britannicus, who could cut ahead in the royal blood line if he hooks up with Junia, the great-great-granddaughter of Augustus. Agrippina would like to hang onto her power by triangulating Nero's camp against that of Britannicus and Junia (Britunia? Jutannicus?); Nero, needless to say, has other ideas.

His resulting bursts of sadism drive what action there is in Britannicus, but Alfredo Narciso nicely plays against type in the role, giving us Nero as dude, an almost laconic new-media "player” who inches toward fratricide - and madness - in South Beach leisure suits and sandals (a nice little nod to Rome). Narciso’s cool also serves as neat riposte to Kevin O’Donnell’s candor as the trusting, brokenhearted Britannicus, but both actors, strong as they may be, are easily outshone by Merritt Janson in the role of Junia. This second-year acting student at the ART Institute seems to the classic manner born, quickly makes us forget her unfortunate costume, and rivets us in the play’s most famously perverse scene (above), in which she must reject her lover – or risk his assassination. It’s here that the production's vision of floating, paranoid power-lust suddenly coheres, as we watch Janson’s tortured image on giant screens as she tries to hide her pain from Britannicus – and us (there's one last meta-twist in the fact that we're cast as Nero).

So - rule, Britannicus? Not quite. Elsewhere this Orwellian Rome is less compelling - the video perspectives at first feed our sense of paranoia, but then, as the play sharpens its focus, Nero’s spying eyes begin to feel more like the director's. Still, Woodruff finds so many solutions to Racine’s special problems (his sense of poise, his emotional claustrophobia) that I’m almost loathe to point out that despite his thousand eyes, he’s missed the heart of the drama: a clan in moral, sexual and political meltdown, perhaps the central trope of Racine, whose shocking, unruffled amorality is sharpest when slicing into the bosom of motherhood. Even in his first play, the playwright described his twin heroes as hating each other while curled in the womb, and it’s that touch of malice beyond the pale, between brother and brother or mother and son, that’s almost the sine qua non of his work. Yet somehow it eludes the ART cast (except, perhaps, for David Wilson Barnes, in his laid-back but still slithering Narcissus).

Part of the problem lies, surprisingly, with the more experienced actors. In the pivotal role of Agrippina, Joan MacIntosh is all brittle self-awareness, which certainly makes her performance fun (and over time her sexual glamour has only steeped, not faded). But while this mother is (almost) as lethal as her son, MacIntosh never reveals the remorseless lioness within the sardonic lamb; even their incest - a power game if ever there was one - is here played for laughs. And MacIntosh isn't given much support by John Sierros, who only slowly gets a handle on the scheming General Burrhus, and even less by Adrianne Krstansky, who in the role of confidante Albina is just flat-out bad.

MySpace gone mad: surfing the panopticon in Britannicus.

Still, if the production sometimes stumbles in its sandals, it rights itself before the finish line, as a shell-shocked Nero, finally driven mad by his own guilt, strums a lullaby to himself on that lonely gee-tar - while he’s filmed, of course, for the big screen. I suppose the self-destructive rock star imagery is predictable, but from Woodruff it’s also heartfelt, and it’s certainly coherent with his idea that as our personalities are now “mediated,” our drama should be, too. Perhaps, of course, the scenelet even amounts to something like self-critique – but at any rate, it’s resonant, and I’m sure I’m not alone in hoping it’s not the last Woodruff image seen on the ART stage.

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