TIMON OF ATHENS
Bard on the Beach has saved the best for last. For its fourth show, director James Fagan Tait drags Timon of Athens into the 21st century with the help of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. Though it may not prove as popular as Bard’s spaghetti-Western Taming of the Shrew, Tait’s novel re-imagining of one of Shakespeare’s least accessible plays makes it the most vivid theatrical experience of the summer.
Naïve, generous Timon (David Mackay) showers his Athenian friends with feasts, money and jewels, deaf to the cynic Apemantus (Allan Zinyk) who rails against their false flattery and knavery. Timon is also blind to his own foolish profligacy, ignoring the warnings of his loyal steward Flavius (Melissa Poll) that he’s bankrupting himself.
When the moneylenders start calling in his debts, Timon, with the swagger of Conrad Black, insists that his loyal friends will bail him out. But they prove to be hypocrites and ingrates. Severely disillusioned, Timon exiles himself to a cave in the wilderness where he madly proclaims the horrors of humankind.
In one of Shakespeare’s stranger turns Timon discovers gold in his cave. He gives most of it to Alcibiades (Gerry Mackay), an honest soldier who has also been betrayed by Athens and has decided to destroy it.
Best known as a comedian, David Mackay does terrific work as the near-tragic Timon, managing even to make his long, repetitious misanthropic rants varied and interesting. He’s supported by strong acting from the other principles as well as the ensemble, especially Scott Bellis, Jennifer Lines, Craig Erickson, and Parnelli Parnes.
Tait’s staging is riveting. Joelysa Pankanea’s vibraphone and percussion and the melancholy tones of Mark Haney’s bowed bass accompany the actors across the empty stage. Moving in almost ritualistic cadences, they sometimes sing or chant their speeches, and once break out into grotesque dance. Ominous dark business suits, military fatigues, and dark glasses predominate, but Mara Gottler’s present-day costumes also include the occasional startling transvestite outfit.
Tait imaginatively maximizes economies of gesture. All props and stage actions are mimed. When Timon tears off a cheque or munches on a root or scrabbles in his cave, we see and hear Pankanea at the side of the stage creating the sound effect.
He also utilizes slow-motion in marvelous ways. Just before intermission the actors remove the white sheet covering the stage as if pulling a tablecloth out from under Timon’s excessively-laid tables. Near the end Alcibiades slowly mimes machine-gunning a line of Athenian civilians, their backs turned and hands raised, horribly evoking so many familiar images of contemporary political atrocity.
Greed and folly, ingratitude and injustice are better dramatized in other Shakespearean plays but rarely more effectively than in this production.