The stomping ground for Capital Fringe fanatics does not lie dormant this spring: Through June 1, WSC Avant Bard is rocking the Shop at Fort Fringe with an adventurous offering that exemplifies the company’s signature blend of high- and low-brow theatre inspired by the classics.
The premiere of the glam rock musical Nero/Pseudo invokes the classics in more than one sense of the word: creators Richard Byrne (book and lyrics) and Jon Langford and Jim Elkington (music) weds Roman history to the sound of FM-radio staples by Gary Glitter and Queen. Though the marriage sounds a bit strained at first, and the product it creates is a bit roughly fashioned, I found that the concept of telling Nero’s story through this decadent and erotic rock musical ultimately created something surprising, original, and fun.
Nero/Pseudo interrogates the view of Nero’s artistic forays as symptoms of his egotism and madness, instead proposing that Nero may have been an artist first and tyrant second.
The present action takes place shortly after his death, when a traveling singer who looks and sings like Nero appears in a flailing Greek tavern. The gutsy proprietress Chrysis and the actor Stratocles drug and kidnap the look-alike bard and coerce him into giving a concert disguised as Nero, claiming that his death was a hoax.
However, the dialogue does not focus on these characters or their present plot so much as it recounts at great length the life and times of Nero. These stories are interspersed with background allusions and a flashback to the Pontus’s former life as a Roman slave. Meanwhile, the songs do not deal with the Greek’s story or that of Nero: they imagine the emperor’s lost epic poem about The Fall of Troy.
Nero/Pseudo offers a number of perspectives on this chapter of Roman history, but it didn’t take a stance until a closing monologue from the ghost of Nero—a roving 11th hour meaning-making on art and the inevitability of death that scarcely seemed to grow organically from the play. Moment by moment, I enjoyed the musical, but the overall effect of all these stories within a story felt a bit convoluted.
WSC Avant Bard’s lively delivery capitalized on the many strengths of Nero/Pseudo, making it easy to set aside my misgivings with it’s overall structure. As the bard Pontus, Bradley Foster Smith skillfully takes on the archetype of the glam rock front man, referencing Steven Tyler and David Bowie to create an anguished, fragile savant whose art is akin to martyrdom.
As the fraudsters Chrysis and Stratocles, Gillian Shelly and Lee Liebeskind drive long stretches of historical narrative with a wonderful chemistry, contrasting the earthiness of the tavern lady with the pomposity of the out-of-work actor.
Closes June 1, 2014
The Shop at Fort Fringe
607 New York Avenue, NW
1 hour, 50 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $25 – $35
Thursdays thru Sundays
The ensemble of Ryan Alan Jones, Alani Kravitz, and Brian McDermott have an energized larger-than-life story, and created the sensation that it was being played out by more than a cast of merely six. The costumes and lighting (Elizabeth Ennis and Joseph Walls respectively), were a delightfully hideous blend of glam, glitter, and the classical era—the designers for this show did ugly just right.
Nero/Pseudo sates an appetite for the carnivalesque and bizarre while feeding us new viewpoints on a notorious historical figure. While comedy seemed to be its primary intention, I found that the play’s musings on human bondage and authenticity lingered longer than its lighter moments. Nero/Pseudo presents a captivating exercise of imagination, time traveling to a moment in history that deserves a second look. The execution is at times rough, and purity of form is wholly absent, but if polish is what you’re looking for, then a glam rock musical about Nero is unlikely to entice you under any circumstances.
Lovers of experiment, of classical history, of classic rock, of playwrights and players who take a risk—I recommend this musical to you. As for the Capital Fringe devotees, (among whose ranks I count myself) I propose a visit to the Fort for Nero/Pseudo as the perfect appetizer to tide you over until the festival in July.
Nero/Pseudo . Book and lyrics by Richard Byrne . music by Jim Elkington and Jon Langford. Directed by Patrick Pearson. Featuring Bradley Foster Smith, Gillian Shelly, Lee Liebeskind, Ryan Alan Jones, Alani Kravitz and Brian McDermott . Set design: . Joseph B. Musumeci Jr. . Costumes: Elizabeth Ennis . Lighting design: Joseph R. Walls . Sound design: Neil McFadden . Movement: Sarah Ripper. Produced by WSC Avant Bard . Reviewed by J. Robert Williams.