Timon of Athens
"Timon of Athens" is a lesser known play by William Shakespeare, and an unfinished play, which leaves it open to interpretation. So lesser known, in fact, that no one I spoke to about it, outside the theater, had ever heard of it before.
The wonderful and renowned Chicago Shakespeare Theater is celebrating their 25th anniversary season, and they have done all of Shakespeare’s more well known works, and a few of the other lesser known as well. Indeed, the last time they staged "Timon of Athens" was in 1997. And so again, they staged "Timon" in modern dress with their usual thoughtful and successful planning and style.
With true understanding of the modern audience and the times we live in, director Barbara Gaines creates a modern Athens with iPads, a stock market, strippers, and sycophants that mirrors the media-reported environment of Wall Street perfectly.
Citizen Timon is a wealthy and well-to-do older statesman in Athens, beloved by politicians for the money he gives them, followed by hangers-on and flattered within an inch of his life by everyone who is around him. Spending and spending and buying and hosting lavish parties, Timon seems a very popular fellow.
But soon Timon’s lifestyle is shown to be a scam. His money is not his and his creditors come to collect. His friends turn him away with varying degrees of cruelty when he asks for his lavish gifts back. As all the trappings of wealth are stripped away, Timon becomes bitter and disillusioned.
He winds up in the desert coast, outside of Athens, where he rants and raves about the weakness of men, the vagaries of wealth and his betrayal. While he is on the coast, he digs in the sand to find food...and finds an enormous fortune of gold. Soon his old pals start coming to visit the broken and embittered Timon. But Timon has quickly learned misanthropy and turns them away, writing his own death as he does.
It is hard to feel sympathy for Timon. The veteran actor Ian McDiarmid plays him with smug querulousness and though, his performance is nuanced and humorous, Shakespeare has not given him much to work with. Timon doesn’t connect with people. His one true and loyal friend and servant, Flavius, played with empathy by Sean Fortunato, shows up on Timon’s deserted coastline, and Timon doesn’t even recognize him. Indeed, it is a little like trying to feel sorry for Bernie Madoff. Timon is so self-absorbed, so entitled that when fate turns against him, it is hard to care.
There are strong echoes of "King Lear" in the language of the play. Timon is like Lear, but far less charming. But some of the same themes of greed, control, and betrayal echo through this play. The setting and modern placement is the true genius of this staging of Timon.
If this had been staged in Athens in the period in which it is written, it would have been even harder to connect to. The modern elements of technology, the Wall Street stock ticker, and the modern and natty costumes were the best unifying elements of Timon’s story.
Some wonderful supporting performances from Sean Blake as Timander, and Kevin Gudahl as the Judge, add spice and enliven what would have been just Timon whining.
To enjoy this staging of "Timon of Athens," it is necessary to get past the fact that Shakespeare didn’t always hit it out of the park. the acting is impeccable. The staging is genius. The bard didn’t give them much to work with, and that is the bottom line.
"Timon of Athens" is playing through June 10 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Navy Pier. For tickets call 312-595-5600 or visit http://www.chicagoshakes.com.