Amid San Francisco’s ballooning decadence and inequality, ne’er is there more an appropriate time to stage Shakespeare’s wildly byzantine play, Timon of Athens.
This version of one of Shakespeare’s later works, showing through May 6 at the Cutting Ball Theater, purports to take place in our foggy metropolis, and the parallel imagery is obvious: the Google Glass and Bluetooth-clad characters, the dancing and sushi dinners, tent encampments, and of course, the froth – the good times on borrowed cash.
Timon of Athens follows Lord Timon (played by Brennan Pickman-Thoon), a noble who surrounds himself with hangers-on. In the name of friendship, Timon spends uncomfortable amounts of cash to keep these so-called “friends” around him.
But Timon cannot sustain his generosity and, not long after a large banquet at his house, we learn that Timon was largely spending on credit — and some of his creditors want their money back. Unsurprisingly, the young lord (or tech baron, if you prefer) cannot pay.
He calls on his friends, but they do not come to his aid. After an emotional breakdown — in which he scolds his friends for their lack of reciprocity — Timon, insolvent, retreats into a tent somewhere on the outskirts of the city.
Here, Timon finds a large amount of gold, and when his friends and others find out, they come looking for him. This time, however, Timon asks nothing in return as his friends and others seek his fortune. With a depleted value in friendship, so comes his depleted value of money, or vice versa.
Of course, the plot is more complex than Timon’s journey. There are many characters in this play, and at least one other subplot (more on that later). The play features many twists and turns, philosophical digressions and dense, poetic language. It is no surprise that Timon is rarely staged.
The question then becomes: did director Rob Melrose actually make this version entertaining?
The first couple acts were performed with so much energy – singing and dancing, free and unabashed performances by the more eccentric characters. The first half was also easier — a recognizable tale of overindulgence, nihilism and loss.
Actor Doug Nolan as Ventidius, a man Timon bails out of prison, was particularly convincing (and, dare I say, fun). With his Gary Busey-like insanity, he made Ventidius his own.
This was particularly clear during a scene in which one of Timon’s servants (played by María Ascensión Leigh) tried to collect money from him. Instead of ponying up cash, Ventidius tries to seduce her. It would not be surprising if Nolan, dressed in a robe and making aggressive passes at the servant, molded the character in this particular scene after Harvey Weinstein.
Pickman-Thoon as Timon, and Courtney Walsh as Timon’s main servant, Flavius, play off each other well. The two guide their characters smoothly from their early moments of hubris and invincibility to their later states of desperation and confusion.
Also impressive was David Sinaiko as Apemantus, the homeless philosopher — one of the two voices of reason in Timon’s world.
One of his scenes, the first banquet at Timon’s house, was the production’s punchiest. As the characters drown in the Timon-sponsored hedonism, Apemantus, a cynic of Timon’s largesse, delivers a few monologues. And, while he does, the partying goes into slow motion.
“O, you gods, what a number of men eats Timon, and he sees ‘em not! It grieves me to see so many dip their meat in one man’s blood,” says Apemantus, overcome with loathing — as if, like in today’s San Francisco, it is only the street population who can see such loose spending and blind consumption in slow motion.
But after the intermission, after Timon goes into exile, the production gets gnarly. Timon’s many characters are played by a cast of 10 actors, making it difficult to follow who exactly is who. That is no fault to Melrose: he took on a play that has been criticized for having a multitude of undeveloped characters, and he did so with a limited cast.
Most unclear is the subplot — that of Alcibiades, a soldier friend of Timon’s (played by Ed Berkeley). His first true introduction comes during a scene that blindsides the audience with no primer. His story continues into the second half, but his motives and affinity for Timon remain unclear.
Perhaps some of Alcibiades’ presence was cut from the first half to streamline Timon’s struggles with friendships and debt, but it catches up with the play: Alcibiades is arguably Timon’s truest friend, but that fact is rarely apparent until the very end, when Alcibiades marches on Athens and seems to avenge Timon’s death. But it’s really hard to know for sure.
In short, Melrose did well to make Timon accessible during the first half. But he did so at the expense of the second, during which the characters, plot and philosophical ventures become dizzying and dull.
That’s no fault to the actors, and maybe not even the director. Some scholars believe Timon of Athens to be an unfinished work— one that Shakespeare himself may have not even seen performed. (Did he even want to?)
It’s clear that, as far as the second half is concerned, there’s nothing Melrose could have done: the biggest issue with this Shakespeare play was, in true tragic form, the Shakespeare itself.