Artifex. The Artistic Life of Emperor Nero.
nytheatre.com review by E. Michael Lockley
August 22, 2009
As I stood in line to see Artifex, a volunteer from the Cherry Lane Theater approached me with an opportunity to enter a raffle to see the Cherry Lane's next production, The Lady With All The Answers starring Judith Ivey. Oh how I wish Ms. Ivey had been with me as I watched the not-so-easy to follow Artifex, because I certainly had a lot of questions.
In terms of story, there is no narrative structure, instead there are short scenes that examine different aspects of the artist's life. The complete title of the show is: Artifex, The Artistic Life of Emperor Nero, so the focus of most of the scenes is on Emperor Nero. We were able to see moments from his troubled relationship with his mother, his struggles with his desire for women, and ultimately Nero's obsession with being an artist overwhelming any desire to actually be an Emperor. In addition to Nero, there is a troupe of four artists who are friends of Nero and who help Nero share his tale with the audience. This is as much as I could piece together from the hour-long journey of the show. There are a couple of songs, there is something that might be considered a dance (the actors in a circle threw their hands up), and there are some funny moments, but once the show was over I didn't quite understand much about Emperor Nero and I was quite underwhelmed if their depiction of an "artistic life" was supposed to be anywhere near accurate.
For the most part the show felt like a history lesson, without the lesson. It might work best in a Roman museum, where an historical account of the struggles of Emperor Nero would be appropriate and relevant, but even then it would need to be streamlined to more clearly tell the story of Nero. What initially excited me about the piece was its potential to be relevant to artists of all eras and ages; its ability to be universal in exploring how Emperor Nero's struggle is just the same as Kanye West's or Andy Warhol's or Barbara Streisand's. Instead the piece is steeped in history, including costumes and music that all seem like they could have been from 54 A.D. (when Nero's reign started), but don't seem to be aware of the "artistic life" outside of that era. I was also disappointed by the rehearsed execution of the work. While the actors, from reading their bios, are quite accomplished, their performance felt uninspired, it felt like they were stuck in a cage. Perhaps it is because they are all Italian and are performing in English, but I was surprised that the artists on stage couldn't inspire an audience the way their characters seemed to desire. Every moment seemed so choreographed, so rehearsed, that passion and spontaneity, two of the most important aspects of live theatre, were nowhere to be found.
The message of the show is clear: the characters, during an ensemble moment, repeatedly chant, "the fire of art flames only for me." I get that. That makes sense; the artist obsessed with his art. But what I wanted to see was a piece of live theatre that would make me feel. I'm an artist and I would have been so thrilled to laugh at the highs of Emperor Nero and cry at the lows, but unfortunately, even as an artist, I must say that there was little to feel for in this production.