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When the Roman emperor Nero was born in AD 37, an astrologer declared he would have a “naturally cruel heart” and would become a “public danger.” Another warned, Nero “will be king and will kill his mother.”

In his recent Private Lives of the Roman Emperors, Anthony Blond disagrees. He calls Nero “the most misunderstood man ever.” Nero didn’t set fire to Rome in AD 64, wasn’t in town at the time, and did not fiddle. Plus, the first five years of Nero’s rule were “a mini golden age.” Nero mollified the masses with panem et circenses: bread (also water) and games. Rather than debate key political issues with passion, the masses argued the merits of this gladiator or that charioteer. The modern equivalent: chips, beer, and ESPN.

Of course, Blond concedes, Nero did blame a new religious sect, not yet called Christians, for the holocaust and persecuted them mercilessly. The author, who tends to overstate, also concedes that “the world’s greatest party giver” eventually lost touch with reality. And, after several failed attempts, he had his mother murdered, along with countless others.

Jean Racine’s Britannicus (1669) takes place during Nero’s “golden age.” The 22-year-old emperor comes within inches of having it all. The populace adores his generosity — bread and games and his lowered taxes — and his humility. When the senate passed a vote of thanks to him, he replied, “Wait until I deserve them!”

In the play, Nero can satisfy every whim with a wave of his scepter. Except Junia. He falls for the one woman in Rome who won’t reciprocate. She loves Britannicus, son of Emperor Claudius and legitimate heir to the throne. Nero is 99.9 percent fulfilled. But the one thing he cannot have becomes an expanding aperture through which crawls the horrific Nero of prophecy — and legend.

It’s fashionable to regard Roman history through a modern lens: see it as The Sopranos with togas. It was not. Tony and Paulie Walnuts are small spuds compared to the national havoc that power-hungry Romans could generate. Every player on that stage was a conspiracy theorist, of necessity. A more useful TV model would be Survivor, since the various Roman factions would create alliances that they could, or most likely could not, trust. Unlike Survivor, however, in Rome a well-placed word, or just a mere aside, became a dagger.

Compass Theatre is staging a pared-down version of Britannicus (from Racine’s five acts to less than two hours). The production and Howard Rubenstein’s spare translation have a let-’er-rip feel. Racine wrote rhyming, 12-syllable lines that give the play a sense of order, in contrast to the feeding frenzy of motives it unleashes. But script and production are in such a hurry that the reasons for doing something — Nero’s, in particular — take a backseat to the doing. Since the two-act play’s so brief, there’s room to slow down, but director Miriam Cuperman has her cast blaze through the text, especially the exposition, as if late for the circus.

At the same time, most of the acting lacks fluidity. The cast declaims, as if reciting Racine’s Alexandrine couplets, rather than speaks. Those who do the latter, Glynn Beddington as Nero’s scheming mother Agrippina and Dale Morris as the crafty advisor Narcissus, illustrate the stiff readings by contrast. Historians say Agrippina, Caligula’s sister and Nero’s domineering mother, combined megalomania with a flair for the theatrical. Beddington not only illustrates both effectively, she deserves a battlefield promotion — masks of tragedy and comedy with laurel clusters — for having to perform one of the longest patches of exposition in recent memory.

Racine and revisionist historians omit that, among his other manias, Nero may have lusted after his mother, making him an Oedipus Rex on steroids (“there was no family relationship,” writes biographer Suetonius, “which Nero did not criminally abuse”). As Nero, Rich Carrillo relies too much on attitude, far too little on depth or nuance. Ditto: Bayardo de Murguia’s Brittanicus and Jenna Selby’s Junia.

Brian Redfern’s creamy-white marble set has appeal, as do Abigail Hewes’s period silks, tunics, and togas. Though the production leaves much to be desired, the play harkens us back to the fascinating Julio-Claudian emperors who honored every libidinous impulse and were as dysfunctional as the Greek gods.

FIELD NOTES: Just one Nero story, a mild one at that. The emperor prided himself in his musical abilities. “No one was allowed to leave the theater during a recital,” writes Suetonius in The Twelve Caesars, “however pressing the reason.” Women had to give birth in the house seats. Since the gates were locked, spectators lowered themselves down the rear wall, risking broken limbs. Others got so bored they faked “death and were carried away for burial.”

Britannicus by Jean Racine, translated by Howard Rubenstein
Compass Theatre, 3704 Fifth Avenue, Hillcrest
Directed by Miriam Cuperman; cast: Glynn Beddington, Neil McDonald, Bayardo de Murguia, Dale Morris, Rich Carrillo, Jenna Selby, Renee Gandola, Anthony Hamm, William Parker Shore; scenic design, Brian Redfern; costumes, Abigail Hewes; lighting, Mitchell Simkovsky
Playing through November, Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-688-9210.

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