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Chicago by John Olson

Timon of Athens
Chicago Shakespeare Theatre

Also see John's review of The Iceman Cometh

Timon of Athens
Ian McDiarmid (center) and cast
Just after this production's intermission, the title character says of gold, "much of this will make black white, foul fair, wrong right." Shakespeare's uncompromising view of the evils of wealth is given an equally explicit statement of its resonance today in Barbara Gaines' production of this seldom-performed play, starring Ian McDiarmid. It's in modern dress, with the mostly male cast decked out in quite expensive-looking business suits, and with financial data flashing above on a digital display. These visual analogies to the world of high finance have been done before: in last year's touring Merchant of Venice starring F. Murray Abraham, for one example. Gaines, though, takes the analogy farther by placing the initial scene of the dinner party thrown by the wealthy Timon at a business called "Timon Capital." It's hard to ignore the resemblance to one Bain Capital, former employer of the presumptive Republican Party nominee for U.S. President. Additional contemporary references are provided through flashy projections designed by Mike Tutaj, giving Shakespeare's painter character an iPad on which to compose his portrait of Timon, and through a pulsing rock background score. Though this production was announced over a year ago, the events since—namely the "Occupy" movement and the growing discussion of income inequality—give this take even greater topicality than Abraham's Merchant enjoyed 14 months ago.

The play opens to the strains of a rock song called "Running with the Bulls," which helps to immediately establish a tone of macho competitiveness for this world of high finance (the cast is all-male, except for three dancers who entertain the men at dinner). Timon (McDiarmid) is much revered by this crowd—largely because of his generosity—buying services and items from the he doesn't need, paying their debts, getting them out of prison. Certainly they admire his perceived success as well and want to bask in his glory in hopes of having it rub off on them. The trouble is, Timon is himself broke and deeply in debt, but has been ignoring the warnings of his faithful employee Flavius (Sean Fortunato). When the debtors begin to call, Timon's generosity is not returned by the friends he had helped so selflessly. He banishes himself to the outskirts of Athens, where he subsists on whatever food he can forage. Ironically, he stumbles on a cache of gold—enough to repay his debts and restore his station in Athens. By this time, though, having gone mad with rage at his treatment, he rejects the value of money and chooses to give it away where it will do the most harm—specifically by financing a raid on Athens led by the young warrior Alcibiades (Danforth Comins) who has been banished by the Governors.

The play has a simple enough arc and message, and is told succinctly in this two-hour and ten-minute production. That's enough time, though, to provide a meaty leading role for McDiarmid and an abundance of substantial supporting and character roles for another 14 actors. McDiarmid, whose abundant Shakespeare and other classical stage credits are daunting, but who may be best known as the Emperor Palpatine of five Star Wars films, has in Timon a worthy vehicle to display his talents. At the outset, Timon is a kind and confident, if slightly dotty old man—with more than a passing bespectacled resemblance to media mogul Rupert Murdoch. After his downfall, Timon falls into an all-consuming rage. He still has powers of reasoning, but his world view has changed so dramatically that he no longer sees hope or reason for living. In his exile (which in the script begins with Scene III of Act IV, but comprises the second half of this production), he is visited by those from his better days and he has the opportunity to interact with them on a variety of levels. On stage throughout virtually all of this second half, McDiarmid, as Timon, has a field day confronting his former friends and rivals.

First is the soldier Alcibiades, who stumbles across Timon accidentally. Alcibiades is played by Danforth Comins as resolute in his convictions as uncompromising in his desire for revenge on the governors who banished him. McDiarmid's Timon is initially dismissive of the soldier and responds to him with a detachment even though they both are disgusted with the leaders of Athens. He gives Alcibiades enough of his gold to finance the warrior's attack on the city. Next is Apemantus, a critic of both Timon and the other moneyed men, who is given a wry character turn by James Newcomb. Timon spars with this critic whom he previously tolerated and allowed to hang on, and delivers some tasty barbs at Apemantus' expense. Timon reacts with resignation toward two mercenaries who enter (Demetrios Troy and Samuel Taylor, who also play businessmen in earlier scenes). He toys with the hypocrisy of the sycophantic painter and poet (Timothy Edward Kane and Kevin Gudahl, in clever character work) who again seek his patronage. His rage boils over when he's visited by two senators (William Dick and Terry Hamilton, both drolly funny here and in their previous scenes as favorites of Timon), rejecting their entreaties to return to Athens and oppose the attack by Alcibiades. The only visitor he embraces is his employee Flavius (earnestly played by Fortunato), whom he views as the only honest man in Athens, and gives him his remaining gold. Yet, in an epilogue not in the text, Gaines suggests that the gold corrupts Flavius as Timon has said it always will to those who have too much of it.

The action is played on a simple set designed by Kevin Depinet, with the Athens scenes using sleek modern office furniture. The action on the beach makes use of a trap door, under which the gold is found and Timon hides. Lindsay Jones created the sound design and original music that help greatly in establishing a contemporary and edgy feel for the piece. Susan E. Mickey's costumes include, beyond the aforementioned tailored suits, some non-specific but threatening military uniforms, exotic costumes for the dancers, and neutral white tatters for Timon during his exile. Robert Wierzel's lighting design gives a harshly bright look to the scenes in business rooms, with a softer feel for the dinner parties and a hazy glow for the seaside.

While Timon of Athens is one of Shakespeare's less-frequently performed plays, it's no museum piece of interest only to Shakespeare completists. This production's current relevance and star turn from one of the Bard's leading interpreters in the meaty leading role make it a must. It's a tight, concise production that, at just over two hours, is accessible for even the lesser Shakespearean scholars among us.

Timon of Athens will play through June 10, 2012, at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier. For tickets, contact the box office at 312-595-5600 or visit www.chicagoshakes.com.


Photo: Liz Lauren

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-- John Olson



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