By William Shakespeare. Directed by James Fagan Tait. A Bard on the Beach production. On the Studio Stage in Vanier Park on Tuesday, July 17. Continues until September 20
In this production of Timon of Athens, director James Fagan Tait has taken a script that could easily look dreary, repetitive, and simplistic, and turned it into a sparkling fable about naiveté and betrayal.
The title character, a wealthy Athenian, distributes more money and jewels than he actually has to a sycophantic coterie. When Timon's debtors call in their loans, he turns to his so-called friends but they refuse him. Embittered and penniless, Timon goes to live in a cave outside the city.
There's no subplot, and the text relentlessly hammers home the point that Timon is a spendthrift and there'll be hell to pay. The genius of Tait's direction is that he makes the script both emotionally compelling and stylistically dazzling.
The performances are persuasively understated and naturalistic. As David Mackay plays it, there's a slight desperation to Timon's pose as the generous host, leaving the impression that this emotionally baffled guy is trying to buy love. Because he's slightly off psychologically, Timon's fall is even more painful to witness. In the second half, sunburned and ragged, he looks like a street person, a businessman who has slipped a cog and tumbled from gullibility to rage without registering reason or moderation as options.
Tait plays this naturalism against gorgeous artifice. Working with composer Joelysa Pankanea, his frequent collaborator, he reimagines several of the verse passages as lyrical and often melancholy songs. And there are several lovely tableaux, including one that suggests a painting of Timon and his associates. Timon flips in and out of the "canvas" even as he discusses it.
Mara Gottler's modern costumes are stylishly cut. I especially appreciated the ubiquity of sunglasses in this tale of alienation, posing, and greed. Physically, there's only one jarring note: in the first half, actors mount the stage by using wobbly chairs as steps, and in the second they merely scramble up. It's awkward.
There's a passage just before the interval in which honesty and fakery come together most beautifully. Timon's loyal servants, who are ruined by their master's fall, bid one another farewell in a song that Pankanea and Tait have created from dialogue: "We must all part into this sea of air." In true Brechtian style, the moment is obviously constructed, so the audience stays intellectually engaged not to mention aesthetically rewarded. Yet the actors perform with such sincerity they'll break your heart.
Bard on the Beach has developed a fantastic company of actors. The troupe has also attracted and nurtured a fantastic audience. The tent was packed the night I attended for an experimental staging of one of Shakespeare's most challenging scripts.
Every production at Bard on the Beach this year is artistically ambitious. Tait's Timon is the most stylistically exciting.