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).

Full ‘Hamlet’ enriches familiar story

This Show is part of Bard Fest, central Indiana’s annual Shakespeare festival. Info and tickets at www.indybardfest.com.

By Wendy Carson

By now we all know the story of Hamlet. It’s one of Shakespeare’s most produced plays and you’ve likely seen more than one version of it. However, Doug Powers and the Carmel Theatre Company have chosen to give us a different take by giving us an almost entirely unabridged look at the play.

Before you balk at the 3-plus hour running length (with intermission), note that with these rarely acted scenes returned to the story, it just deepens the richness of the characters. It also brings the secondary plot forward (remember Norway?) bringing more closure and purpose to many of the characters.

Honestly, I had forgotten many of the scenes and speeches performed and was touched by the true beauty of not only their narrative but the language itself.

Also, the starkness of the stage and minimalist set pieces help remind you that this show is about listening to and understanding the characters. In order to fulfill this task, one must have great actors and Powers has outdone himself in procuring them.

Brian G. Hartz sizzles as Hamlet, pulling forth all of the rage and deviousness that the character embodies. Miranda Nehrig turns Ophelia into a young woman who’s confusion and frustrations over Hamlet’s behavior help lead her to her desperate end. Both have skill in communicating beyond saying the lines, especially Nehrig’s talent for adding volumes with a single facial expression.

Eric Bryant as Claudius and Jean Arnold as Gertrude present the quintessential parents who are bewildered as to why their son has so quickly changed his demeanor. Their recent nuptials so soon after the previous King’s untimely death never cross their mind as a possible reason.

While most of the Bard Fest offerings have cast women in several men’s roles, Powers uses his casting choices to their maximum effect. Jo Bennett plays Horatio as a dear friend but in later scenes there seems to be romantic tension, which they pull off with great aplomb.

However, the best example of this is with the character of Guildenstern, played by Gorgi Parks Fulper. Instructed to play upon her history with Hamlet to obtain information, she is asked to use her feminine wiles. Meanwhile, Benjamin Mathis plays Rosencrantz as the perfect second banana who seems to always be left out of the whole scheme.

Alan Cloe is perfect as wise but tragic Polonius. Noah Winston is a fiery force as his son, Laertes.

Casting is also clever in its players with two or more roles: Fulper and Mathis also play palace guards in the opening scene. Janice Hibbard is the messenger to Norway, and later is that country’s warrior princess Fortinbras. The ghost of murdered King Hamlet (the title character’s dad) is portrayed by Tony Armstrong, who also plays an identical character in the play-within-the-play that Hamlet (the younger) sets up to watch his stepfather’s reaction; later Armstrong is the gravedigger who unearths Yorick’s skull.

In addition, kudos to Rachel Snyder and Kyrsten Lyster as members of the traveling troupe of Players.

There is some intense swordplay in this production, so credit is due to Bryant as fight choreographer.

Remaining performances are 7:30 p.m. Friday, 7:30 Saturday (with talkback following) and 1 p.m. Sunday (Oct. 25-27) at the IndyFringe Theatre.

Bard Fest: ‘Merchant’ an entertaining comedy with troubling themes

This Show is part of Bard Fest, central Indiana’s annual Shakespeare festival. Info and tickets at www.bardfestindy.com.

By Wendy Carson

One of the things I love about Bardfest is that at least one production is more obscure or rarely produced. This year’s offering is “The Merchant of Venice,” presented by First Folio Productions, adapted and directed by Doug Powers.

The play is actually a romantic comedy, but has tragic overtones. It sports an easy-to-follow plotline and is immensely entertaining. Therefore, you may wonder why is it not done more often. I can only guess it is due to the overwhelming Antisemitism rife in the story’s main plot. So let’s address that matter: I believe it exists, not just to justify the character’s level of vengeance, but also because in the overwhelmingly Catholic nation, the Jews were a minority. This opens a dialogue regarding the mistrust, denigration and oppression of minorities. Especially in our turbulent modern times.

That all being said, let’s now get to the actual play.

The crux of the story is that Bassanio desires to woo the lovely Portia, a wealthy heiress. Since he has foolishly squandered his own fortunes, he turns to his beloved friend, Antonio, to loan him the money needed (which will be easily repaid by his new wife’s money). With Antonio’s funds tied up in his own business ventures, they must seek the aid of a local Jewish moneylender, Shylock. Having been slandered and ill-treated my Antonio for years, Shylock is loath to help him, but agrees to the loan provided he is delivered a pound of flesh upon default. Since the gentlemen know that there is no way this would occur, they agree.

Portia’s father passed away, but had devised a method to aid her in the choosing of the correct bridegroom. Three coffers are given, one each of gold, silver and lead, each with a warning regarding the contents – only one granting permission to marry. After other suitors fail, Bassanio chooses correctly.

Meanwhile, Antonio’s ships have all wrecked leaving him unable to repay the debt. Add to this that one of his friends, Lorenzo, not only eloped with Shylock’s only daughter, Jessica, but also converted her to Christianity, and the overwhelmed Shylock resolves to exact his revenge by literally collecting the promised pound of flesh. Bassanio offers to save his friend by paying twice the amount of the debt, but for Shylock, this is not about money, it is about his honor.

A trial commences and Shylock is granted his pound of flesh. However, the visiting lawyer – Portia in disguise – announces that upon taking his due, he not only must take the exact amount (no more, no less) but must also not spill a drop of blood in its collection. What will Shylock do?

Emily Bohn as Portia and Amanda Boldt as her maid, Nerissa, aptly bring forward the cunning that women are scarcely afforded in many of the Bard’s productions. Ryan Ruckman (Antonio) and Zach Taylor (Bassanio) portray not only the determination of each character but their intensely loving friendship. Ryan Reddick beautifully embodies the emotional sorrow and vengeance that drive Shylock to his end.

While John Mortell plays three characters throughout the show, his endearingly comic turn as Portia’s somewhat dimwitted servant, Balthasar, is truly a delight to behold. Bringing much-needed levity to a show that can be fraught with darkness.

The cast also includes Jim Banta, Aaron Cleveland, Ben Mathis, Pat Mullen, Rachel Snyder, Dwuan Watson Jr. and Lexy Weixel – all excellent.

Powers places the play in an Italy resembling the 1930s, as his Director’s Note explains, a time when rampant antisemitism has swept Europe, but its tragic endgame was yet to be revealed.

Remaining performances are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 5-7, at the Indyfringe Indy Eleven Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair, just east of the College and Mass Ave. intersection.