Review: Timon of Athens by William Shakespeare. Produced by Seattle Shakespeare Company. Directed by John Kazanjian. Scenic Design by Shawn Ketchum Johnson. Costume Design by Jocelyne Fowler. Lighting Design by Lindsay Smith. Sound Design by Robertson Witmer. With Mary Ewald, Julie Briskman, Michael Winters, Peter Crook, BRACE EVANS, Jason Marr, Kevin McKeon, Peter Dylan O’Connor, Arjun Pande, P. Cullen Ryan, Jason Sanford, Kerry Skalsky, Alexandra Verriano. Now through February 4, 2018 at Center Theatre at Seattle Center.
I’m in the final stretch…
Of seeing performances of Shakespeare’s 37 plays. With last Friday’s premiere of Seattle Shakespeare Company’s TIMON OF ATHENS, I only have 6 or 7 more to experience. “Timon” was actually quite a lucky get for a Shakespearian “Bucket List”…it’s seldom produced (along with most of the other plays remaining on my “to do” list like the even less performed “Troilus and Cressida”).
“Timon” is less produced than many other Shakespeare works for the simple reason it’s an odd duck of a play. It has a nebulous structure, a relatively simple plot (for Shakespeare), a near total lack of female characters (the few women in the play are sex workers of one kind or the other), an abrupt ending and much speculation that this is one of the plays Shakespeare co-wrote with a collaborator (in the case of “Timon”, it’s thought to be another successful playwright of the era, Thomas Middleton.)
The plot is fairly simple: Timon is a wealthy lord of Athens circa 404 BC who likes to treat his many friends to feasts, frivolities and many expressions of his devotion in the way of lavish gifts like jewels and horses. The surly misanthropic philosopher Apemantus cautions Timon that he is foolish to spend his money on false friends, most of whom are unworthy of his devotion, as does another friend, General Alcibiades and Timon’s own steward, the kindly and loyal Flavius. But Timon doesn’t listen and eventually runs out of money. Heavily in debt with bill collectors at the door, he reaches out to all his supposed friends only to have them turn their backs on him. Shocked at their betrayal, Timon stages one final banquet where he curses his fake friends and pelts them with rocks before fleeing into a self imposed exile in a lonely rural setting. Meanwhile, Alcibiades is also banished from Athens after a disagreement and vowing revenge, he plots the destruction of the city.
Some time passes and Timon is now a bitter, misanthropic hermit who loathes mankind and only wishes to be alone in the wilderness. Being a Shakespearean play, moments after taking this vow of misanthropy, Timon discovers a large cache of gold buried in the earth. More coincidences mount up as various characters from Timon’s past show up at his abode including Alcibiades with a prostitute in tow. The general recounts his bitterness at Athens so Timon throws gold at his friend seeking to help fund Alcibiades revenge on the city and also gives the sex worker money and encourages her to infect all mankind with venereal disease!
In the best scene of the play, Apemantus arrives to basically say “I told you so” and the two old sardonic grumps make like a pair of bitter old drag queens and declare “The Library is Open!” and proceed to get into a “shade contest” with each trying to out insult the other.
Eventually, the loyal Flavius finds Timon and they embrace. Alcibiades attacks Athens and all the sycophants scream in horror and then Timon dies and….the play is over.
Yeah…it’s kinda weird.
But, in the hands of veteran director John Kazanjian with his long time colleague (and significant other) esteemed Seattle actress Mary Ewald in the gender blind cast leading role of Timon, it’s also mostly a delight. In a very simple but well focused and visually streamlined staging, the story is cleanly and neatly told without any fuss or bother. The director chose to go with women in two of the principal roles to give women a larger voice in the play; the only other female roles are exotic dancers or prostitutes. Pronouns are not changed and each actress (Ewald as Timon and popular Seattle actress Julie Briskman as the general Alcibiades) play the roles as men but with little attempt to alter physicality. While the charming Ms Briskman is probably the last person I’d cast as a gruff and foreboding military man, the gender blind casting really isn’t problematic. It’s Shakespeare and frankly, in my opinion, ANYTHING is possible in Shakespeare…that’s the joy of creating a new production. It’s old…it’s classic..it’s timeless and changing genders, races, ages, whatever is pretty much secondary to the power of the words.
And, that’s the chief delight of this Timon: Ms Ewald’s crystal clear performance and her strong command of the stage and Mr. Kazanjian’s careful placement of the actors and emphasis on careful and concise performances of Shakespeare’s dialogue make this show a winner. So frequently, unsure directors and unsure actors will stumble their way through those words in a garbled, mangled race to get them out of the way as fast as possible. (It’s happened far too many times to count at Seattle Shakes alone…)
The staging and direction of the actors are an asset and Ms Ewald’s delicious performance is a major asset; she’s superb at capturing poor old needy Timon’s giddy foolishness and basic need to be loved in the early scenes of the play as well as the bitterness and contempt and utter disgust after Timon has “woke up” to the harsh realities of his former existence. But, Ms Ewald also gets a chance to match acting wits with the terrific Michael Winters as the other old grump in the play, the equally dour and plain speaking philosopher Apemantus who gets to dryly comment on the foolishness of men (and Timon in particular) early in the play then gets to return later to duel with the “woke” Timon in the aforementioned “throwing shade” scene as the pair trade insults. It’s really worth the price of a theater ticket just to hear Ms Ewald and Mr. Winters go at it with every delicious Shakespearean insult in the book.
The ensemble is strong as well with Peter Crook his usual excellent self in the rather small role of the steward. Peter Dylan O’Connor and BRACE EVANS (note: the actor spells his name in all caps) have fun as more effete members of Timon’s vapid entourage. My only critique with the casting has to do with the size of the “Dramatis personæ” for Timon of Athens.…which is obviously built into the play and Shakespeare’s “fault”. This play has a lot of minor characters so the ensemble here has to play many different roles each which does get a bit confusing at times as to who is playing what role at a specific moment in the play. Other than hiring more actors, I think the only way this could be alleviated is by having more varied looks for some of the roles? Hats or wigs or masks or something that helps the audience tell which of 6 characters an actor might be portraying. It’s a minor quibble but the issue is apparent in this production.
The design is….basic. The production is apparently going for a “Globe Theatre” aesthetic with a simple playing area…which is fine. But, why does it have to be in such ugly drab colors?
Seattle Shakespeare Company’s “Timon of Athens” is worth a visit solely for all the reasons I’ve already mentioned: a strong cast led by Mary Ewald and Michael Winters’ super performances and a solid staging from John Kazanjian. But, the play examines timely themes about corrupt politics and commerce and usury and debt and false friends and betrayal and it’s like watching the evening news but with more colorfully vivid language and clever barbs than the usual banal “shithole countries” kind of remarks we’ve sadly become accustomed to in the last year or so…