What you have in Timon of Athens is perhaps the most obscure, least respected, least performed script in the Shakespeare canon. Contrariwise, what you have onstage at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company (CSC) is a sharp-edged, frequently funny, relentlessly caustic, razzle-dazzle production that mines Timon for its cautionary values — greed is bad; gold corrupts; people use people; true friendship is rare — and hangs tight as it slathers on layers of contemporary satire: strippers, machine guns, dance-bar music, Halloween-masked terrorists, white tuxedos and, yes, an outrageous Sarah Palin look-alike.
Happily, these showbiz stunts (not all of which work) don’t mask or distort the script or, worse, patronize it. Rather, their effect is to bridge gaps in the jumbled, stop-and-go plot, burnish its fine but difficult language and amplify its impact — as worthy productions should. No, Timon won’t ever cut it as a great play, but CSC’s imaginer-director Brian Isaac Phillips and a sterling company have made it into a thoroughly satisfying, even meaningful evening of theater.
We’re in classical Athens, except it’s some expressionistic “now” with junque-chic costuming (Heidi Jo Schiemer) and a thrusting, skyscraping, houses-of-cards designed by Matt Johnson.
Noble, wealthy Timon (the name of the character played by Nick Rose rhymes with “Simon”) is insanely, impetuously generous with his money, staging elaborate banquets and showering loot on everyone. Lordly leeches, vendors and senators swarm, masquerading as friends and taking everything he offers.
Then his coffers run dry and (can you imagine?) the leeches turn their backs. Hurt and angered, Timon becomes as madly, impetuously abusive and misanthropic as he had been generous. He strips himself, physically and symbolically, stomps out of Athens and takes up residence in a cave where, guess what, he discovers gold. This time he learns to use it as a weapon. Through Timon’s fall into agony and isolation, philosopher-friend Apemantus (Jeremy Dubin) stands at hand, voicing the playwright’s acerbic point of view.
This Timon sits more comfortably in contemporary trappings than any period-shifted production I’ve seen in years. Not because it’s a weak script, easily susceptible to dickering, but because much of Phillips’ dickering is apt. Sherman Fracher’s send-up of Palin is nearly as scathing as Tina Fey’s, but it’s not especially germane to the goings-on in Timon. Nor are the pseudo-logos of Obama stimulus beneficiary companies stitched onto the backs of the thieving senators’ tailcoats. But substituting lap-dancing strippers for Amazons in an Act One masque and turning the courtesans of Act Two into Uzi-toting trollops does work, especially their tinsel wigs.
Showbiz aside, as in every production, it’s the company that floats the boat. And float these CSC stalwarts do. Rose and Dubin are more than equal to the verbal gymnastics the wordy script requires, although I could have lived with a little less shouting. Rose negotiates the day-to-night mood shift in Timon’s character nimbly and, even more nimbly, gives the 400-year-old wordplay the sense of modern speech.
Equal power is in evidence in the supporting roles: Jim Hopkins is an aging general; Kris Stoker is Timon’s ever-faithful steward, Flavius; Justin McCombs is Timon’s manservant; and Jeff Groh, Fracher and Billy Chace play the thieving senators. All of which leads me to a considered assertion: This high-style Timon is new proof, even stronger than their recent Seagull, that CSC has come of age. It has metamorphosed into a company of settled, sure-handed professionals, people able to imagine fresh concepts, then bring them to life in fully realized productions.
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