A period piece set in ancient Rome, FireFlood Productions’ As Rome Burns brings strong performances to bear on reconsidering an historical moment from long ago.

This show explores the motivations and circumstances that led one of history’s most controversial figures to cast him in a human light. That is not to say redeem him, but rather pull his story back from the black-or-white depictions of the historical Nero into a more nuanced depiction.

Photograph courtesy of FireFlood Entertainment
Photograph courtesy of FireFlood Entertainment

The acting performances are strong, but hindered by the wordiness of the script. I found it very hard to get into moments with them, because I was forced to navigate their words’ density. I recognize this as an attempt to situate the show as “classical,” but it served to separate the play from our contemporary reality, feeling more like “in the style of” than bringing me to that place.

I think this is emblematic of a larger problem with the show; it misses an opportunity to draw our attention to the parallels between Nero’s Rome and our modern lives. If the show focused a bit more on giving the audience a clearer way to see themselves in these characters, it would not only make it much easier to accomplish its other story-telling goals, but also realize its social relevance.

It seems to me that when we unearth a story that’s nearly 2000 years old, there ought to be a reason to tell that story in this way at this time. The symbolism in all the powerful moments the script and performers conjure is profoundly inward-focused, and never manages to bridge this historical gap. The audience indulges it, because the show does its theatrical work well, but indulgence is not the feeling you’re aiming for.

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