Fiddling with History

Danny Scheie, star of ''You, Nero'' at Arena Stage, owes his start in show business to Julie Andrews

By Doug Rule
Photography by Todd Franson
Published on December 7, 2011, 11:30pm | Comments

What would Julie do?

Danny Scheie asks himself that periodically, referring to Julie Andrews. ''She's a good barometer. She always behaves really, really well.''

So what did Julie do?

Danny Scheie: ''You, Nero'' at Arena

Danny Scheie: ''You, Nero'' at Arena

(Photo by Todd Franson)

''I was just a little tiny kid when I saw Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music,'' says the actor. ''[I knew right away] that's what I wanted to do, but I was confused whether I wanted to play a guitar on a mountaintop, or teach children, or be an actor, or write songs.''

Eventually, he realized he had a case of ''classic backstage-movie musical ambition: to get my tits on the stage and shake them so people would clap.''

Scheie may sound like a standup comedian, but he's really just a very funny man of the stage. He's currently at Arena Stage in the dark comedy You, Nero as the infamous Roman emperor. In Amy Freed's script, the narcissistic Nero is so inspired as a child by a playwright named Scribonius -- loosely based on real-life Nero biographer Suetonius -- that he summons Scribonius to his court. And that's one reason Julie Andrews is on Scheie's mind these days.

''If I was emperor of the world,'' he asks, ''would I invite Julie over? Ye-ah!''

Scheie is making his Washington debut in the role, which he's performed twice before in his home state of California. An actor with a strong background in Shakespeare, the San Francisco-based Scheie will return to D.C. next spring to act in a new Folger Theatre production of The Taming of the Shrew.

Scheie draws parallels between Rome as portrayed in You, Nero and America today, especially Hollywood. Both empires are ''decadent and trashy,'' where popular entertainment -- be it in the Colosseum or Fox-TV -- is free and often script-less. Nero often put himself in the center ring. He toured Greece, Scheie points out, ''like an imagined rock star -- just for his own ego masturbation.''

Of course, Nero was far more savage than Ryan Seacrest or Kim Kardashian. Nero killed his own mother, Agrippina (played at Arena by storied Washington actress Nancy Robinette). He had a boy named Fabiolo castrated, then passed him off as his wife. Scheie compares Fabiolo, who becomes one of the most famous, powerful people in Rome, to Justin Bieber. While losing one's testicles is a cut too low for most, it's a metaphor here for how much some will sacrifice for fame.

''Was Nero gay?" Scheie smiles. "He is now!"

Romans were generally bi- or pansexual. Homosexuality is a relatively recent societal construct, Scheie explains, putting on his academic hat for a moment. The actor earned a doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley, writing his dissertation nearly 20 years ago on queer aspects to Shakespeare. For all her influence, Julie Andrews didn't lead Scheie to actually earn a Ph.D. ''I was following dick,'' he concedes. A Midwestern boy who graduated high school from the Chicago suburbs and earned his undergraduate degree from Indiana University, Scheie originally set sail for scholarly study out west accompanying an early boyfriend. He never looked back.

''I don't mean to talk [so much] about Julie Andrews,'' Scheie says late in a 45-minute interview at Arena. Andrews, you see, is Scheie's diva of choice, the way Judy Garland, Madonna, Janet Jackson or Lady Gaga are for others. Scheie relates the fact that the Stonewall riots -- and the American gay movement itself -- actually sparked on the night of Garland's funeral. Some speculate despair over her death was a motivating factor in the rioting.

''When Julie dies, God forbid, I haven't had a drink in 20 years,'' he continues. ''[But] that's when I'll go to a bar and knock back some Bourbon and start a riot if anyone fucks with me. And change the world again.''

You, Nero plays through Jan. 1, 2012, at Arena Stage, 1101 6th St. SW. Tickets are $55 to $85. Call 202-488-3300 or visit arenastage.org.