By William Shakespeare. Directed by Meg Roe. A Bard on the Beach production. On the Howard Family Stage in the Douglas Campbell Theatre on Tuesday, July 10. Continues until September 9
Timon of Athens is considered one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays”—but the challenges inherent in the script have given director Meg Roe the freedom to create a wildly original production.
Shakespeare’s Timon is a wealthy Athenian who lavishes gifts on his so-called friends. They abandon him when his fortune runs out. The original script has only two female characters—and they’re prostitutes. Roe’s first emendation is to reverse the gender roles: all the major characters are women; the two male cast members here play “the Help”.
Roe has also set the play in a glossy present-day world and drastically reduced Shakespeare’s text, combining characters, eliminating subplots, and compressing time, which gives the play a contemporary urgency.
The opening sees Timon’s glamorous friends arrive at her ultra-chic penthouse for a party. We’re immersed in a disorienting mix of party chitchat, air kisses, and cocktail piano as the guests doff their sunglasses and show off their jewels while the servants pass out flutes of Champagne. Call it The Real Housewives of Athens—minus the husbands, and with the occasional bit of Shakespearean dialogue filtering through.
Enter Colleen Wheeler’s Timon, who receives tributes from a poet and a painter, then doles out jewels to her hangers-on. When the party ends, her servant Flavius tells Timon that she’s bankrupt. (Notices from creditors arrive with pings on smartphones.) Timon instructs Flavius to request help from her friends, but one by one they refuse, criticizing Timon’s improvidence—despite their having been its greatest beneficiaries.
When Timon learns of her friends’ betrayal, she decides to throw them one last feast. This scene brings every element of Roe’s production exquisitely into sync. A glowing sunset filters through the vertical louvered blinds in Timon’s apartment as the Help set the table in silent, mesmerizing movements (choreographed by Amanda Testini) while jazzy piano plays gently in the background. The sumptuously attired guests take their seats as Timon, in a white pantsuit, recites a bitter grace—“With nothing bless them, as they are to me nothing”—and uncover their plates to find bowls of warm water.
Timon tosses it in their faces, then smashes the dishes while the servants spring into panicked action to clean up. Timon then crawls under the stage and starts tearing the house from its foundations, ranting all the while. In an extraordinarily physical performance, Wheeler pries apart the joists under the stage floor, slipping in the bare dirt below and getting filthy. Her actions overpower the text; we can’t always follow the words, but we get their drift: Timon has lost faith in humanity, and nothing will bring her back.
Wheeler’s knockout performance is supported by strong work from the other cast members. Moya O’Connell’s earnest Flavius and Ming Hudson’s mousy Flaminius are quintessential personal assistants, dressed smartly in black and perpetually clutching iPads. Quelemia Sparrow’s Ventidius nails superficial friendship: watch her oblivious blinks and head bobs when Timon’s servant asks her for a loan. Adele Noronha’s casually callous Isidore and Patti Allan’s haughty Sempronius are also standouts, while Marci T. House brings a restrained naturalism to Apemantus, the only one in Timon’s circle of acquaintances who refuses to flatter her.
The production’s design elements are outstanding. The breakdown of Drew Facey’s extraordinary set, which transforms from slick opulence to the bare dirt of Timon’s exile, is supported by John Webber’s expressive lighting, which gets starker and shorts out with increasing frequency as Timon’s world collapses, and Roe and Alessandro Juliani’s sound design descends into cacophony. Mara Gottler’s costumes celebrate excess: the sheer abundance of colour on display adds to the atmosphere of the climactic feast.
The protracted denouement doesn’t manage to sustain the energy of that scene and its aftermath, but in its throttling of convention and its scathing critique of shallow materialism, this Timon is a visionary success.