There is much to admire in Octavia, the latest offering by MBS Productions, and Mark-Brian Sonna, the man behind the theatre company. Mr. Sonna continues to excavate intriguing historical plays (among other projects) translate them himself, then conceive them using minimal set, props and costumes. Though “minimal” here does not suggest meager or threadbare. There is something close to magic in the way he uses vivid fabric and tantalizing, implacable movement (similar to choreography) to create an ingenious, absorbing spectacle for the audience. Mr. Sonna would seem to be on a mission to share his passion for classics such as history, mythology, ancient tragedy and satire. And considering the demands of that mission, he does extremely well.
Octavia was the step-sister and first wife of Nero. Agrippina was Nero’s mother, Seneca his tutor and mentor. Caligula was Nero’s uncle and Claudius adopted him, making Nero an heir to throne of emperor. Octavia is set early in Nero’s career, before he is made emperor, after Agrippina’s mysterious death (so she appears as a ghost) and on the verge of Octavia’s banishment. There are a few facts to bear in mind. Like his uncle Caligula, Nero was ruthless, depraved, ambitious and insane. He wasn’t completely off the charts, like Caligula, but he was dangerous and non compos mentis (not in his right mind). Octavia works mostly because the title character could have easily cost her husband politically, and Nero never let his conscience eclipse expediency. This is pretty much the premise of the piece. You might say it’s an augury to impending catastrophes.
Sonna makes it clear in the program notes that Octavia, written by Curiatius Maternus, has not been performed in nearly 2000 years (if ever) because it was highly critical of the government and ruler of his day. There were other cultural and logistical problems since then : “…it was thought as being too dense and difficult.“ Sonna goes on to describe a subsequent version that was merely a paraphrase of the text, with lines omitted, etc… Therein lies a problem. Sonna is so devoted to the reader’s experience on the page, that he has trouble transliterating content to cogent performance. His semiotic language (the activity and placement of the actors) is stirring, but there’s simply too much text for the audience to process. It is possible to distill a story down to its essence, without eviscerating it. Like the difference between flash fiction and poetry. I applaud Mr. Sonna’s lofty intentions. The actors make a valiant and focused effort to deliver their lines with clarity and involvement and they are quite impressive. Octavia is a brisk, compelling evening of theatre.
MBS Productions proudly presents Octavia, playing October 13th-31st, 2011. Stone Cottage Theatre, 15650 Addison Road, Addison TX 75001 214-477-4942. www.MBSProductions.net. Starring: Michelle Mays (Octavia) Anne Taylor (nurse) Blake Owen (Nero) Michael Rathbun (Seneca) Megan Duelm (Chorus) Rey Torres Messenger) Katie Reynolds (Poppea) and Sherri Small (Agrippina).