'Emperors' lure auds

ROME — An Italian playwriting duo with a meager budget has scored where HBO could not, creating a drama about ancient Rome that became the Eternal City’s surprise summertime hit.

For two weeks in July, the stage production of “Emperors on Trial” attracted capacity crowds to the half-dome ruins of the 4th-century Basilica di Massenzio, within the grounds of the Forum. In all, a total of nearly 15,000 appassionati of ancient Roman culture took in the free performance, which was organized by the city of Rome and the Roman cultural institute on a relative shoestring budget of E350,000 ($450,000).

A free performance in Rome will always attract a crowd. But, for Italians, the chance to participate in the mock trial of a former head of state — in this case, Julius Caesar in week one, and, for week two, Nero — proved to be the big draw.

On some evenings, there was as much drama outside the venue as within, as hundreds of jostling Romans clamored to snatch up the precious tickets. Even adding 800 seats, to bring the capacity to more than 2,000, in week two couldn’t satisfy demand.

“We didn’t think from the beginning that this would be such a big success,” Corrado Augias, a well-known Italian author who conceived of the play, told Variety. “It’s a bit adventurous to put on a play about Roman emperors.”

It was a gamble, indeed, considering Italians gave the HBO’s “Rome” an overwhelming thumb’s down. State pubcaster RAI scored dreadfully low ratings when the miniseries was aired on RAI 2 in spring despite its obvious ties to ancient and modern-day Rome — it is being filmed on one of the largest sets ever constructed in Rome’s Cinecitta Studios.

And, as most Italian film distribs could attest, putting on an extravaganza during hot summer nights is risky business. Many of Rome’s cinemas shut down for July and August.

Augias, who co-wrote the play along with Vladimiro Polchi, put on the same performance in Rome in 2005 to considerably smaller fanfare. This summer, however, word-of-mouth publicity resulted in packed performances night after night, and now, calls to bring the play overseas.

Augias says he recently received inquiries from the Italian Cultural Institute in Buenos Aires to stage “Emperors” in the Argentine capital. And, he says, packed performances of the play in Paris at the Italian Cultural Institute in June proved the show could draw crowds in cities with considerably smaller Latin roots such as London, New York or Boston.

“It’s very easy to export this play. It costs very little to produce, as there are just a few actors,” he says, adding that he would consider funding from state-run cultural institutes or private businesses to fund any overseas productions.

Two years ago Augias and Polchi conceived the idea of using the writings of Caesar, Plutarch and William Shakespeare, among others, to develop a script for a mock trial of the controversial historical figures.

With the help of Rome’s mayor, Walter Veltroni, the duo recruited well-known actors of Italy’s stage, TV and bigscreen such as Andrea Giordana, Adriana Asti and Luisa Ranieri  to play the roles of  Nero and Caesar’s accusers and defenders. (The former emperors themselves are absent from the perfs.) Characters such as Seneca and Nero’s mother, Agrippina, would present their case for why the emperor should be found guilty or innocent of crimes ranging from abuse of power to mass murder.

At the end of the 90-minute performance, a jury of 12, plucked on the spot from the crowd, would declare their verdict. Caesar was found innocent on four of the five evenings; Nero was found guilty just once. The voting tallies caused one mini scandal, Augias reports. Dismayed by the favorable verdicts, one of the actors performing in the trial of Caesar managed to stack the jury with friends on the final evening, resulting in the sole guilty vote.

Such shenanigans, Augias jokes, would doom a play that puts on trial contemporary leaders. “You can play with ancient facts from 20 centuries ago. Nobody really cares. But modern politics? That’s dangerous.”

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