Tuesday, April 29, 2014

ASF: "Timon of Athens"

One of William Shakespeare's least performed works, Timon of Athens completes the canon of the Bard's plays to be produced by the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. Likely a collaboration with Thomas Middleton, Timon is one of the Bard's later plays that combines satire with the tragic.

Commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Kenneth Cavander's "transcription for contemporary voices" retains some of the original's words while re-writing much of it to make it more accessible to contemporary audiences. Cavander and director Geoffrey Sherman also move the setting to modern day Wall Street, where people manipulate one another as well as their financial investments. -- And, though Wall Street itself is rarely if ever referenced here, it works, once your ear becomes accustomed to it.

Timon [Anthony Cochrane in a powerful performance] is an overly generous sort who gives away fortunes, assists people in financial distress, and -- though he assumes that his generosity will be repaid if needed, claiming "I am rich in my friends" -- he "learns doubt and suspicion too late" when everything collapses around him. Not heeding several warnings, Timon gets so far into debt that he has to rely on the very people he had helped to now come to his aid. As they refuse him with weak excuses as in the medieval morality play Everyman, Timon leaves town for the wild place where he will feel free "to hate Man and all humanity"; and like King Lear upon the heath, he is free to rail against the elements until word gets out that he has found another fortune and the sycophants return.

Cavander respects the stylistic inconsistencies in the Shalespeare/Middleton text in his own modernized script, and there lies at least some of this production's challenges. Whereas Shakespeare's elevated verse [the early-on formal, patterned gregarious speeches and later the high emotional drive of Timon's epithets against his "pseudo-friends" who desert him in his need, for example], are given with passionate conviction by Mr. Cochrane; and the scenes between Timon and his three loyal countrymen -- the aggressively straightforward conscience of Apemantus [Rodney Clark is solid in the role]. the honest and trustworthy soldier Alcibiades [Brik Berkes turns in a stalwart rendition] and the ever faithful steward Flavius [Paul Hebron's understated frustration with his master is finally recognized as the "one good man" in Timon's world] -- are provided appropriate gravitas that makes these sections resonate with universal appeal regardless of setting.

By contrast, Middleton's satiric scenes with the various hangers-on and fawning artists and public officials, Senators and creditors, are more prosaic and thereby have less weight; and Cavander's modern vocabulary, which is only sporadically spoken in thick Brooklynese misses out on an opportunity to create and capitalize on a potentially devastating world of familiar caricatures that could have made the satire more convincing.

Messrs. Clark, Berkes, and Hebron -- each touching on a different aspect of Timon's nature -- give sympathetic treatment and a humanizing element to a man whose stature has fallen to tragic dimensions.

And it is Mr. Cochrane who carries the weight of the play on his able shoulders; his performance is impressive, and he never falters in his depiction of a man who learns the seductive power and lure of gold that can transform mankind's behavior. As Apemantus says: "Show me a man who has spent all his money and I'll show you a man without friends." Not an appealing point; however, in today's greedy consumer-driven world, where money and possessions often blind us to see the value in honesty and loyalty and compassion for those in need, and where appearances trump reality, we might do well to take heed to the lessons in Timon of Athens.