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'Britannicus'
American Repertory Theatre' s production of "Britannicus" by Jean Racine, directed by Robert Woodruff. (Burnt Sun)
STAGE REVIEW

Power play

Intrigue shapes the fate of an empire in an electrifying 'Britannicus' at the ART

CAMBRIDGE -- With a profoundly intelligent, complex, and impassioned interpretation of Jean Racine's "Britannicus," Robert Woodruff has turned his final production as artistic director of the American Repertory Theatre into a magnificent parting gift. To feel the emotional and spiritual crackle as this underappreciated classic comes to new and powerful life is to be reminded of what Woodruff can do, and to mourn afresh that, unless he returns as a guest director, he will no longer be doing it here.

Racine sets his tragedy at the beginning of Nero's ruinous reign, at a critical moment when it was still just barely possible to believe that the emperor could have ruled Rome well. Such a moment had contemporary echoes for the playwright, who may have been urging his sovereign, Louis XIV, not to follow Nero's power-mad path, and it's not hard to hear similar echoes today.

Like Racine, though, Woodruff mostly lets these echoes speak for themselves. Yes, there's a giant banner along the back wall -- "Empire creates its own reality" -- that is adapted from a Bush administration quote. And, yes, the actors sit in modern suits on modern furniture; Nero thrashes on a guitar instead of strumming a lyre. But the words they all speak, in C.H. Sisson's muscular translation, are true to the story and spirit of Racine's imagined Rome.

This Roman court is full of intrigue and betrayal -- not just full of it, but besotted by it. "What pleasure people take in treachery!" as the young Junia exclaims.

Junia is one point of Racine's central triangle, along with Britannicus and Nero -- Britannicus's half-brother, who, having stolen his crown, now wants to steal his bride as well. Never mind that Nero's already married to Octavia, or that his mother, Agrippina, is enraged at his meddling in Britannicus's betrothal, which she herself had arranged.

Agrippina's rage, fueled by her fear of losing power, is dangerous, and Nero knows it. He wouldn't be ruling if she hadn't persuaded Claudius, her fourth husband (and uncle), to make her little Nero his heir instead of his own son, Britannicus -- and then poisoned Claudius before he could change his mind. So the action begins on a knife's edge, with Nero and Agrippina precariously grappling for control, and it only gets tenser from there.

One of the many remarkable aspects of Woodruff's direction is that it keeps all these dizzying machinations electrifyingly clear. I couldn't read the synopsis, much less the play, without a scorecard, and yet onstage it all plays out with the gripping and inevitable forward motion of a particularly juicy hour of "24."

Yet what's even more gratifying than Woodruff's virtuosic storytelling is the way he develops the resonating horrors of Racine's themes. Everyone in Nero's court, except the innocent young lovers, is driven by a lust for power -- and even the usual kind of lust, like Nero's for Junia, here becomes merely one more expression of that colder and less endearing drive. All the action, from the first soulless coupling of two servants to the last chilling exchange between Nero and Octavia, deepens our sense of the court's twisted, nasty entanglements of sex and power.

That sounds reductive, but onstage it's incredibly rich. Woodruff orchestrates all the elements of the production -- music, sound, light, video, and the shifting spaces of Riccardo Hernandez's set -- into a mesmerizing symphony of feelings and ideas. It's no coincidence that he sends Octavia, normally an offstage character, weaving throughout to sing haunting arias; his hypnotic "Britannicus" is as much opera as play.

He has also elicited fine performances, particularly Alfredo Narciso's slinkily, creepily seductive Nero; Kevin O'Donnell's heartbreakingly trusting Britannicus; and the truly monstrous, glittering serpent that Joan MacIntosh makes of Agrippina. A distracting lisp mars some of Merritt Janson's speeches as Junia, but her expressive face is fine compensation -- particularly when, in one of many expert uses of large video projections on the Venetian blinds at the back of the central anteroom, Woodruff shows us the tears she must hide from her lover in order to placate a spying Nero.

It's a complicated, wrenching, and layered moment, ringing with meanings both personal and political. And Robert Woodruff, bless him, gives it to us whole.

Louise Kennedy can be reached at kennedy@globe.com.

Related content:
A new direction for 'Britannicus'
With "Britannicus," Woodruff returns to a classic, this time bringing contemporary attitude to Jean Racine's 18th-century thriller about the infamous Roman emperor Nero.
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