Don’t ‘fiddle’ and miss this one

By John Lyle Belden

“Seneca and the Soul of Nero” is a new play by Southbank Theatre Company artistic director Marcia Eppich-Harris, but stands well in style and content with other great historical tragedies. I sense it could have been written at any time between now and the 900s, when the myth that Emperor Nero “fiddled while Rome burned” became popular. 

The premiere Southbank production of the play, at the IndyFringe Basile stage through Oct. 2, resembles a Bardfest event in its excellent handling by director Doug Powers and a cast that includes David Mosedale as Stoic philosopher Seneca and Evren Wilder Elliott as teenage “Princeps” Nero. 

Despite the abundance of written material in the First Century, much of it surviving to today, the true history of Nero is anything but clear, with contemporary accounts often written by those who didn’t like the young tyrant and centuries passing to add myth and legend to his story. The fiddle didn’t even exist at the time, but it was possible to draw a bow across a lyre, an instrument that Nero did enjoy playing — and he embraced music and theatre at a time when its practitioners were in lower regard than prostitutes (never mind an alleged god-king). Just as we don’t mind the words that Shakespeare put into the ancients’ mouths, Eppich-Harris is perfectly entitled to her well-researched dramatic license, especially as she captured the spirit of the era and its abundant lessons for today’s social and political climate. 

Seneca was Nero’s tutor when he ascended to the throne, and the boy, feeling immediately in over his head, smartly kept the philosopher on as principal advisor and speechwriter, as well as trusted military leader Afranius Burrus (David Molloy) to head his guard. Also on the scene were his ever-hovering mother Agrippina (Rachel Snyder), naive half-brother Britannicus (Brant Hughes), and dutiful but suspicious stepsister/wife Octavia (Bra’Jae’ Allen) whom he would ignore in favor of the beautiful and ambitious Sabina (Trick Blanchfield). At Seneca’s side were faithful wife Pompeia Paulina (Jenni White) and his nephew, the famous poet Lucan (Noah Winston).

Elliott brilliantly brings us along on the emperor’s journey, as he grows older and more at ease with power, but no more mature. At first troubled by signing off on the deaths of the justly condemned, Nero comes to find a quick murder is an easy solution to an immediate problem — but then more issues pop up in its place. Each death takes a little more of his soul, power-madness devolving to madness, reducing him until nearly no one is left, and the knife is in his hand.

Mosedale stands ever solid, defending his young charge as long as he can while defending himself against the hypocrisy of living large yet espousing Stoic principles. In the end, he must choose between Nero and Rome. White’s Pompeia leads the greater example, steadfast to her husband but never wavering on their moral stand. 

Snyder embodies the complex Agrippina without slipping into villainous caricature, perhaps even engendering some sympathy as the evil she sows grows out of her control. Molloy exemplifies the “good soldier” completely, bearing his orders until his sense of justice can do no more.

An exceptional look at history and the dynamics and hazards of unfettered power, “Seneca and the Soul of Nero” is worthy to stand among the Classics. We encourage all who can to see it, and to those reading this in the future to consider bringing to your own stages.

Find information at southbanktheatre.org and tickets at indyfringe.org. Note that COVID-19 vaccination and masking are required of all audience members. Home viewing via “on-demand” streaming available Oct. 15-Nov. 14 (see Southbank site for details).

Shakespeare historical drama provides free fun at Garfield Park

By John Lyle Belden

The Garfield Shakespeare Company is a wonderful community asset in the near-southside of Indianapolis. Performing in Garfield Park, the company provides an opportunity for actors and crew of all levels of experience to bring on the Bard — and for everyone else to watch it all for free.

Through this weekend at the Garfield Park Arts Center, see them perform “Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2.” These plays, easily fitting into about an hour each with intermission between, lead up to the popular “Henry V,” and detail some of the events of England’s War of the Roses, struggles between dynasties for the British throne.

While the young “Hal,” Prince of Wales (Dillon Richter), makes merry with best bud Edward Poins (Benjamin Mathis), boisterous braggart Sir John Falstaff (Stephen E. Foxworthy) and company, his father, Henry IV (John Mortell) seeks to squash unrest in his kingdom, even while his health is failing.

The Percy family, especially young “Hotspur” (J.D. Bonitz) don’t like how their former ally is now their ruler and raise up a rebellion. After some wild (and very entertaining) antics by the Falstaff gang, the younger Henry is summoned by his father to take seriously his station and join him in battle. This Hal does, leading to a fateful meeting with Hotspur.

Part 2 deals with the aftermath of the Percys’ rebellion, leading to a “peace” meeting between its leaders and the king’s younger son, Prince John of Lancaster (Eirene Brubaker). The kingdom secure, the crown can pass to young Henry. But is he truly “king” material?

Director Chris Burton has created an excellent environment to experience this rich chapter of history. The audience sits at tables of the “Boar’s Head Tavern,” complete with complimentary platters of fruit and cheese and non-alcoholic beverages. (Friday and Saturday performances also feature sales of Garfield Brewery products.) When a scene happens to take place in the Boar’s Head of the play,  a character might sit by you for a moment, or an argument break out by your table. Simple sets give us Falstaff’s table; Royal chambers; a war camp; or even two environs at once, where similar conversations take place. History comes alive with moments of stark emotion and rowdy humor.

Key roles feature brilliant acting, especially Morrell’s dying king and Foxworthy’s absolutely perfect Falstaff. Burton even has a twist on the Shakespearean habit of casting boys for female parts, by having teen girl Brubaker play the boy Prince John (who was in his early teens when these events took place). Also solid performances from Brant Hughes, Mike Harold, June Greyson, Mallory Ward, Amber Bradley, Ashley Chase Elliott, Elizabeth Fasbinder, Jim Mellowitz, Joshua Minnich, Andrew K. Olin, and Jay Brubaker as one tough Scotsman.

This production is a follow-up to last year’s “Richard II.” Does this mean we can see “Henry V” next spring? Richter told me he is up for it, so we can hope.

Performances of “Henry IV” are 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, March 28-30. Their next production will be an outdoor staging of “As You Like It” in August. Find information at Facebook.com/garfieldshakespearecompany.