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).

Indiana Ten Minute Play Festival

By John Lyle Belden

In our restricted world, there are not a lot of opportunities for live entertainment. Fortunately, IndyFringe has managed a nice setup in its “pocket park” next to the theatre building, where an audience can sit at tables spaced about six feet apart. The actors use the garage-style opening of the Indy Eleven stage to set up their play space. (See indyfringe.org for upcoming shows at this unique venue.)

Last weekend, that little space held a big variety of entertainment as Fringe presented the Indiana Ten Minute Play Festival. The seven brief comic dramas had a surprising degree of depth and content, even at their silliest, thanks to sharp writing and excellent acting from a fun group of players.

We started with “Hurry Up, It’s Almost Bedtime” by Janice Neal, directed by Anthony Nathan with Emerging Artists Theatre. David Molloy is Frank, who is likely dead, which spells trouble for fellow senior-home residents Rose (Linda Grant), Lucille (Wendy Brown) and Betty (Joy Shurn). Nurse Brittany (Stephanie Anderson) hasn’t caught on, yet. The fast-approaching bedtime of the title gives them an idea to ensure that Frank’s body is found in his bed. While the idea of this play sounds macabre, the Golden-Girls-style repartee among the ladies makes this a nice dark comedy.

“Aloha Apocalypse,” by Marcia Eppich-Harris – directed by Megan Ann Jacobs with Rapture Theatre – is based on an actual event not that long ago when an “incoming missile” alert was sounded in Hawaii. Sophie (Laura Baltz) and Ed (David Molloy) are a mainlander couple on vacation who discover they may only have minutes to live. What to do? After a comically-arranged farewell video to their children, there’s the agonizing wait for The End. Feeling his conscience bother him, Ed makes a confession of infidelity. That doesn’t help them, but it makes things even funnier for us. Fate has the last laugh, of course, when it’s announced that the crisis is a false alarm. Baltz and Malloy have great chemistry, even when the reactions are unstable. A newscaster voice is provided by Thomas Sebald.

“Don’t Toy With Me” by Andrew Black, directed by Casey Ross of Catalyst Repertory Theatre, brings the focus not only down to 10 minutes long but also to 10 inches high, as Thomas Sebald plays a GI Joe action figure that has arrived at the Malibu Beach House occupied by Beach Glam Ken (Grant Nagel). At the moment, they don’t hear the godlike voices of their child masters, so they can be themselves. They remark on how so much of their world is “out of order,” like the canteen or juice bottle they feel compelled to “drink” even if no liquid comes out. Eventually the mistress of the dreamhouse, Malibu Barbie (Kyrsten Lyster), arrives. And even if she can be temporarily distracted by a fashion faux pas, her power over Ken is too strong for the men’s relationship to last. The sharp script and this talented trio make this the most hilarious bit of the evening. And it helps that the actors have their “articulated” movements down, especially Sebald.

“Are You Busy Tonight” – by Russell Ridgeway, directed by Anthony Nathan – is what Mother (Wendy Brown) asks son Kevin (Nathan) in this funny roller coaster of a phone conversation. At first Kevin is annoyed at his mom wanting to invite her to an evening at the theatre, but after suggesting that she ask if someone else is free, he becomes even more exasperated to find out he – her son – was the 28th person she thought to ask! And that included a couple of friends who had died. Nathan is at his best acting flustered, and Brown is a force of nature, so they mint comedy gold here.

Heritage Christian High School Theatre Department presents a teen rite of passage with “Promposal!” by Josie Gingrich, directed by Spencer Elliott. Sam (Bradley Bundrant) likes Anna (Cate Searcy) but over time she has become distant. So, what better way to win her over than by asking her to the Senior Prom, in an extravagant gesture reminiscent of the ’80s movies she likes to watch. Our scene begins as Anna exits the Cafeteria thoroughly embarrassed, and Sam follows, desperate to find out how his perfect plan went so wrong. This sweet and authentic look at high school life, loaded with unforced humor, feels pitch-perfect. Bundrant and Searcy nimbly portray how two such different personalities – he impulsive and loud, she quiet and wanting to be invisible – can eventually feel meant for each other.

Mark Harvey Levine is great at making these short-form plays – Phoenix Theatre patrons may remember some years back he presented a series of them there in “Cabfare for the Common Man.” In this festival, Levine brings us “Ordained,” directed by Megan Ann Jacobs. Sharon (Kyrsten Lister) is manic, unabashed, double-espresso perky, and just recently ordained as a minister by the SacredChurchOfAngelicMinistry.com. Now, at this airport waiting lounge, she has found Abby (Case Jacobus), who is single, and Gary (Grant Nagel), who is also single. Let’s get them married! The resulting scene is wildly hilarious, even as what seems to be an encounter with a well-meaning lunatic starts to have the odd feel of destiny. Jacobus and Nagel play it well, taking the oddness in stride, and Lister is in her element.

What better way to finish an evening of unusual stories than with “Sock Puppet Fetish Noir,” by Kelly McBurnette-Andronicos, directed by Casey Ross, who also stars (stepping in for Missy Rump, who couldn’t make it for health reasons). Jane (Ross) pays a visit to an unusual detective, Inspector Darryl, a puppet sock who will only talk to her sock placed on her hand. It seems some “friends” have gone missing, last seen going into the laundry with their partners. But it turns out that Melvin (David Molloy), the man at the other end of Darryl’s arm, has been keeping secrets in that jar on the desk. So, yes, it’s very weird – quite funny – and with up-for-anything actors like Ross and Malloy, it somehow works.

This was a one-weekend event, so hopefully one or more of these scenes will pop up again somewhere. The festival was an excellent exhibition of local talent and creativity, part of the great and varied Indy theatre scene that we look forward to seeing more of as current events allow.