Friday, October 31, 2008

Compass’s Britannicus: Neo-Classical Masterpiece


Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Photo: Jenna Selby as Junia and Rich Carillo as Nero. Credit: Paul Savage.

Compass Theatre — formerly 6th @ Penn and located, as its earlier name suggested, at the corner of 6th Avenue and Pennsylvania in Hillcrest — has had successes with some pretty unlikely material. They’ve done productions of the classics from ancient Greece in new translations (as well as a sometimes funny, sometimes grim quasi-autobiographical play about their translator!) and, leaving the “marquee” works of Shakespeare to better-heeled companies like the Old Globe, just mounted a flawed but fascinating production of one of the Bard’s least-known plays, Troilus and Cressida. Now they’ve delved into an even more obscure dramatic realm with a surprisingly effective production of Britannicus by French playwright Jean Racine, originally premiered in 1669 and presented here in a new translation by Howard Rubenstein.

There’s a major obstacle to producing anything by Racine or his rival French dramatists today, and it isn’t the language barrier. While comic playwrights like Molière could use the French language flexibly and approach the way people actually talked, for centuries serious French plays were written in alexandrines, a tight, restrictive poetic form that would sound unnatural to modern French audiences and almost totally defies translation. French drama was so stuck on this verse form that in 1830, when Victor Hugo’s Hernani opened with a scene in which one actor interrupted another in mid-alexandrine, the audience literally rioted in protest. Rubenstein’s adaptation, as he explains in his program note, ignored the alexandrine form and “focused on the play’s content expressed in clear standard American English in free verse” —thereby giving the actors a tough but flexible text through which they could create characters and express emotions.

Britannicus deals with a slice of Roman imperial history in the first century C.E. The backstory will be familiar to anyone who’s read Robert Graves’ novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God or seen the 1970’s BBC-TV miniseries based on them, but just to recap: after the death of the notoriously corrupt, libertine and psychopathic emperor Caligula he was succeeded by his uncle Claudius. Claudius governed wisely and rehabilitated the standing of the empire, but he had rotten luck with women. His third wife, Messalina, cheated on him so spectacularly and recklessly that when he was away, she actually challenged the best-known prostitutes of Rome to a contest to see how many men each could have sex with consecutively — and she outlasted them all. When Claudius returned and heard about this, he had Messalina executed and afterwards married Agrippina, a politically ambitious widow determined to make her son Nero the next emperor.

There were thus two rival claimants for the Roman throne — Nero and Britannicus, Claudius’s son by Messalina — and Claudius stunned his biological son and the Roman court by not only adopting Nero but officially proclaiming him the heir. Why Claudius did this remains an historical mystery — in Robert Graves’ version, it was because he wanted a bad emperor to succeed him and smash the credibility of imperial government so Britannicus could lead a revolution and re-establish the former Roman republic — but in the play, which takes place after Agrippina has poisoned the already terminally ill Claudius just in case the old emperor wanted to change his mind, Britannicus is a sympathetic but immature young man who hangs around court and pouts a lot.

As the play opens, Agrippina (Glynn Bedington) is complaining to Burrus (Neil McDonald), whom she had picked during Nero’s boyhood as his tutor, that Nero (Rich Carrillo) never wants to see her any more and she actually has to make appointments for an audience with her son. Next we meet Britannicus (Bayardo de Murguia) complaining to his confidant Narcissus (played by Compass Theatre founder and executive director Dale Morris) that Nero has had his fiancée Junia (Jenna Selby) kidnapped and brought to the imperial palace. It turns out that Nero originally did this just to spite Britannicus, but since then he’s become infatuated with Junia and wants to dump his wife Octavia — an advantageous political marriage arranged, like just about everything else in his political career, by his mom — and marry the even more highly connected Junia, a direct relative of the late emperor Caesar Augustus. (The Roman royal family were a notoriously inbred bunch — don’t even try to keep track of who’s related to whom — but they did such a good job of killing each other off that Nero was the last biological relative of Julius Caesar ever to rule Rome.)

A modern-day playwright, especially one of Left-ish politics, might have taken this story and made it a critique of imperial government and politics in general. (One could easily see a parallel between this family and the Bushes, with Claudius as the first President Bush, Britannicus as Jeb and Nero as George W.) That wasn’t an option for Jean Racine, who was writing during the era when France was ruled by the so-called “Sun King,” Louis XIV, whose imperial pretensions and ruthlessness against anyone who questioned them rivaled those of the Roman rulers who were Racine’s dramatis personae. Instead he concentrated on the private lives of his public figures, creating a story that might well be called Sex and the Empire — though even here he’s decorous enough to ignore such well-known facts about Nero as his bisexuality. (In addition to all the women he bedded and sometimes wedded, Nero had a eunuch slave named Sporus with whom he went through a marriage ceremony — which led some Roman wags to joke about how much better off Rome would have been if Nero’s father had made that sort of marriage.)

What Racine and Rubenstein, in his adaptation, were especially good at is creating an atmosphere of moral corruption and ruthlessness around the court, with spies everywhere, people afraid to disclose true facts or feelings — in one scene Junia has to pretend to have fallen out of love with Britannicus because Nero is spying on them and has threatened to kill Britannicus if she doesn’t fall in line — and all loyalties are uncertain and up for grabs. Narcissus poses as Britannicus’s confidant while simultaneously plotting with Nero to kill him. Nero is shown as a psychopath in the making but also as a desperately weak mama’s boy — director Miriam Cuperman seems to have been influenced by Laurence Olivier’s 1948 film of Hamlet in the way she stages their scenes together — and Britannicus, the supposed hero of the piece, is too whiny and immature to make us want to root for him either.

The acting in Compass’s Britannicus production is uniformly excellent. Glynn Bedington plays Agrippina as a weird combination of Lady Macbeth and Auntie Mame, whining like the stereotypical “Jewish mother” as she reminds Nero, “After all I’ve done for you … ” Bayardo de Murguia perhaps overdoes the pouting as Britannicus, but he’s a good enough actor to make us feel sorry for the guy as a victim even while doubting he’d do much better as emperor than Nero would. Neil McDonald as Burrus suggests a man who’s all too aware that to survive at court he has to act in ways contrary to his own sense of integrity, and who’s accepted that as a grim reality of his life. Dale Morris achieves a chilling coldness as Narcissus (aptly named after the mythological Greek who fell in love with his own image and drowned in pursuit of himself). But the standout performance is given by Rich Carrillo as Nero: short, dark and handsome, he’s able to make the character believable in all his various and rapidly changing moods. The strongest part of his remarkable rendition takes place at the end of the first act: skulking around an empty stage, with no dialogue, he manages to suggest through body language, fleeting changes of expression and sheer stage presence that Nero the spoiled-brat mama’s boy is dying and Nero the psychopathic monster is being born.

Director Miriam Cuperman’s main contribution is in sheer swirling energy. Aided by Rubenstein’s easily speakable translation, she’s able to get refreshingly naturalistic performances from her actors and keep the play moving even through such awkward conventions of antique drama as the announcements, built into the script, of which character is going to enter next. She’s especially effective when she moves the action off the stage and into the theatre auditorium at the climax. Another hero of this production is set designer Brian Redfern, whose version of the Roman palace is enviably solid and far above the community-theatre norm. Abigail Hewes’ costumes are credible but a bit too new-looking (a common failing in period plays and films), and Mitchell Simkovsky’s lighting design is evocative and bright: it’s nice to be watching a play lit by someone who doesn’t equate darkness with “depth.” Rob Hurlbut is credited as “musical coordinator,” and while it’s unclear what that meant, the recorded music is deployed effectively and is more complex and better suited to the action than the relentless kettledrums that punctuated Compass’s Troilus and Cressida.

Britannicus is intense drama, powerfully adapted by Howard Rubenstein and vividly staged by Miriam Cuperman and acted by Rich Carrillo and the rest of her marvelous cast. In a small theatre that’s already gained a reputation for its performances of the classics, Britannicus stands out even for Compass.

Britannicus plays every Thursday through Sunday through November 23 at Compass Theatre (formerly 6th @ Penn), 3704 Sixth Avenue in Hillcrest. Performances are Thurs.-Sat. at 8 p.m. and Sun. at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20 to $23 and are available by calling (619) 688-9210 or online at