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If the finicky listeners of Rome had liked Nero Claudius Caesar’s singing and cithara playing and lyric-poem composing more, he might never have taken his own life a little more than 1,900 years before T. Rex released Electric Warrior. As things were, he had to buy his audiences’ approbation, or intimidate them for it. After he died, his ghost haunted his subjects, in the form of a series of opportunistic impersonators. One of them, who appeared in Greece, didn’t just look like the emperor who famously continued to recite his epic poem The Fall of Troy while Rome burned, but apparently sang and played just like him, too.
That episode is the inspiration for playwright (and former Washington City Paper staffer) Richard Byrne’s original glam-rock musical Nero/Pseudo, which posits that that Nero fake-o was a former slave pressed into his con job by a fading actor, Stratocles, and Chrysis, the proprietor of the Taverna Imperial. Byrne scored the coup of persuading Jon Langford of the Mekons and the Waco Brothers—an old pal of Byrne’s from his days as arts editor of St. Louis’ Riverfront Times—to set his lyrics to music. Langford in turn invited fellow Englishman-in-Chicago Jim Elkington of the Zincs and the Horse’s Ha. After Langford and Elkington performed the initial batch of songs they’d written at a staged reading of the play in Virginia two years ago, Langford was enthusiastic enough to volunteer to write several more. The songs marry the sonic bombast of glam to Langford’s characteristic pith. More musicals should hew to the rules of punk-rock pacing.
In its first full staging at The Shop at Fort Fringe, the piece shows enormous potential to become another meditation on the corrosive power of celebrity. I wonder what a version set in a sports arena would feel like; there’s an inevitable disconnect between the close confines of the Fringe space and the story’s setting of an empire in decline. The best reason to see it in its current form is wiry, slight Bradley Foster Smith’s volatile performance as Pontus, a regular-Joe Roman slave who discovers he can command the screaming thousands. His most extraordinary moment, and the show’s, comes rather later than you’d expect—after he has paid the penalty for his duplicity. Now denied even the use of his body below the neck, Smith still conveys the impression of a guy who can’t stop pacing.
Gillian Shelly and Lee Liebeskind play the other two leads, Chrysis and Stratocles, who are forever fretting how to ply their trade while under constant threat from the censors. Nero/Psuedo doesn’t feel quite as subversive as all that; the show could use a bit more depravity and menace than it has now. But Rome wasn’t sacked in a day.