Friday, May 4, 2012

THE NOT-SO-WILD WORLD OF BUSINESS - 'Timon of Athens' at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

(Photos by Liz Lauren)

Productions of William Shakespeare's - and more than arguably Thomas Middleton's - Timon of Athens have been springing up like perky dandelions lately. Possibly in reaction to a genially received production last spring at the Public Theater. Possibly in reaction to a nerdy infatuation with the moot question of Shakespearean authorship and the reemergence of "lost" texts like Double Falsehood. Possibly in reaction to the aftermath of a national recession resulting from the gross expenditure of invisible money. Whatever the reason, Timon is back, and it's as relevant and as problematic as ever.

Chicago Shakespeare Theater's new, squeaky sleek production of the rarely performed play is anchored by the star-casting of British actor Ian McDiarmid as Timon. Though Chicago audiences will probably best recognize McDiarmid as the Emperor from the "Star Wars" reboot trilogy, he is, in fact, a highly lauded classical actor on West End and Broadway stages, having won the Tony Award in 2006 for a revival of Brian Friel's Faith Healer. And in Chicago Shakespeare Artistic Director Barbara Gaines' new, high concept, 'cutthroat world of business' Timon of Athens, which opened Wednesday night, McDiarmid is among the few onstage elements worth paying any attention to.

Unquestionably relevant to current events, Timon of Athens predominantly concerns the mismanagement of funds and the moral implications of friendship - those daily struggles of the world. Timon, an Athenian lord, secures his closest friends through bribes and base debauchery, playing host to elaborate soirées that walk that narrow line of kegger and orgy. Always looking to please, Timon becomes the group's plutonic sugar daddy, and the merry band of gold diggers keeps the amiable old guy around only for the thickness of his well-oiled pocketbook.

Despite the single-sided advantageousness of the set-up, everything sails along smoothly until Timon's money runs dry, and, one by one, his "friends" abandon him. At a confrontational party, Timon has an epic freakout and storms away seeking refuge on an island, becoming a pajama'd hermit. Speedily, and in a manner only suitable for the Elizabethan stage, Hermit-Timon discovers a treasure trove of gold buried in the sand, and as rumor of the unearthed wealth spreads, his frenemies come looking for it - and him.

Other than a few multi-generational exceptions, the cast of Timon all look to be about twenty-nine. Social climbers, perhaps, taking advantage of a gullible old fool, but all that comes across is the actors' lack of facility with classical text. It is worthwhile to note that, once again, the verse coach of a Chicago Shakespeare production, Kevin Gudahl, is a member of the cast, a regular occurrence at the theatre. For a well-funded, leading classical theatre to not employ a dedicated verse coach is akin to the musical director of a Broadway show moonlighting as a chorus dancer.

The cast's awkward discomfort with Shakespeare's verbiage is schemingly covered up by a dazzling scenic design by Kevin Depinet, which pulls out all the stops. A startling reveal at the opening of the second half has the audience breathless, as a rolling army of haze slowly tiptoes its way into the house - uncloaking an inhabitable upstage island. Equally crisp is Robert Wierzel's starkly bright, futuristic lights, which align well with the concept, off-the-mark though it may be.

In a brow-raising move, indicating some of the strangest typecasting I have seen all season, Sean Fortunato and Terry Hamilton, who respectively played Andrew Fastow and Kenneth Lay in TimeLine Theatre's production of Lucy Prebble's Enron this past winter, portray what essentially amount to the same roles in Timon of Athens, the conniving servant Flavius and the Old (Texan) Senator. I cannot fathom that the move was purposeful, but it certainly drove the Enron-esque placement home. The office conglomerate set and lights in the first half are nearly identical to Enron and its Wall Street aesthetic. The flashy concept is a mistake, pushing the dominant themes of greed and friendship aside to showcase large flat screen televisions with neon scrolling stock quotes, and "GASP!" an onstage iPad.

As the top billed star, McDiarmid manages to act his way through the clutter like a well-adorned hoarder. McDiarmid makes a charismatic Timon, wrapped in a quirky enigma. He colors his words with languid fluidity and that characteristically smoky, aristocratic voice of his. Early in the play, McDiarmid works unnecessarily hard, straining his body in all sorts of positions in order to effortfully squeeze out emotions. But in the second half, like the production as a whole, his most appealing moments come from easy sitting in a ditch or planting himself upstage. Leave the gyrations to YouTube videos of Menudo.

This production, like McDiarmid at his weakest, grasps at an out-of-reach intangible. Gaines wants very much for Timon of Athens to be a full blown tragedy, carelessly tossing in an array of rifle-clad soldiers and live gunshots. Magnifying the war subplot and reshaping the play as an in-office thriller are mutually exclusive aims, but Gaines implements both, obscuring the play and disorienting the audience. Framed by Sound Designer Lindsay Jones' original bluegrass-rock composition, "You're Running With The Bull," the play's atmosphere approaches nonsensical.

There is also a moment of full nudity for McDiarmid, that, while signifying Timon's abandonment of earthly burdens of materialism, is nowhere near earned by this production. It comes from nothing, and fails to adequately serve its purpose. The critically classified 'Problem Plays', of which Timon of Athens is a card carrying member, are always more palatable, and often even quite enjoyable and enlightening when performed as they are, rather than what you want them to be. And a tearful tragedy, Timon of Athens is not.

Part of Timon's "problem" comes from its widely accepted status as a collaboration between William Shakespeare and Thomas Middleton. Middleton is believed to have scribed the larger scenes in the first three acts with Shakespeare penning the bulk of the second half. It makes sense. The first act's structure and moral lessons betray an aura much more alike Jonson's Volpone or Marlowe's Doctor Faustus than anything that came from the tip of the Bard's pen and quill. And the second half, confused by the first, becomes one long Shakespearean gravedigger scene. Still, Timon of Athens has an inexplicable charm about it. Chicago Shakespeare's production is just too hollow and mechanized for any of that charm to come through.-Johnny Oleksinski

'Timon of Athens' plays Chicago Shakespeare Theater through June 10.