Phoenix Rising Productions debuts with the tonally confused Fires of Nero | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

Phoenix Rising Productions debuts with the tonally confused Fires of Nero 

The show explores the question "Are we the new Romans?" without much subtlety.

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Courtesy the Artist

Brand-new Phoenix Rising Productions flaps its wings with the world premiere of company writer-lyricist Aaron Woodstein's episodic musical cum parable about one of history's most terrible enfant terribles.

After Agrippa has her husband, Claudius, killed, clearing the way for her son Nero to ascend to emperor of Rome, a series of assassinations follows, related sometimes in song, other times through vigorous action sequences, and culminating in the Great Fire of Rome. All the action plays out on a bare black-box stage, with only weapons, the odd chair, and a box on wheels—standing in for a funeral bier that's used again and again as the body count climbs—for props. This leaves it to Woodstein's text and the actors' efforts to carry the entirety of the production, and none is equal to the task. The script keeps moving from jokey banter to overserious philosophizing, never able to settle on a consistently effective tone to retell the ancient history that Woodstein obviously thinks is relevant to current events. Likewise, the toga- and garland-wearing cast never look like anything but children playing dress-up. During the performance I attended, the audience guffawed at several scenes that were undoubtedly meant to be poignant or harrowing.

Telling the story of a man-child who acts only in his own narrow self-interest, damn the consequences, has become a cottage industry in the local theater scene the last couple years for obvious reasons, but simply invoking the monsters of the past doesn't necessary illuminate much about our fraught and perilous present. We don't need any more song-and-dance revues to remind us that Rome is burning. Seth Wilson directed.   v

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