Timon of Athens

By on 1 May, 2014 in Art, Fun, Jesseca Cornelson with 1 Comment
Photo by Robertsons Photography

Photo by Robertsons Photography

Saturday, April 26, marked the 450th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s baptism as well as the “Modern English World Premiere” of Timon of Athens at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, completing ASF’s production of Shakespeare’s canon.

Timon, co-written with Thomas Middleton, is according to the esteemed scholar known as the wikipedia, “generally regarded as one of [Shakespeare’s] most obscure and difficult works.” This is due I think, to its lack of romance, which in other plays gave passion to Shakespeare’s tragedies and hilarity to the comedies. At the center of the plot is Timon, whose tragic flaw is his financial generosity. Timon, played by Anthony Cochrane, has a host of well-connected merchants and senators as friends — so long as he has money and gifts to give. But when his generosity leads to bankruptcy, he finds those friends reluctant to return the favor.

The play is philosophical, moralizing, and satirical, and even though I laughed out loud several times, I didn’t have the same emotional investment in Timon that I would in Hamlet or even Titus Andronicus. So I see why this, of all of Shakespeare’s plays, was the last to be produced by ASF. However, the company proved itself more than capable of making even this lesser-known work both amusing and thought-provoking.

The so-called modern English translation retains a certain crispness of  Shakespeare’s Early Modern English, so that the play, perhaps easier to follow, still has the feel the Bard’s impeccable formalism. Translator Kenneth Cavander thankfully took a light hand in his translation, admitting that, “the trick was to leave what is immediate and alive to our ears in the original untouched.” Accordingly, even though most of the actors gave a fairly natural delivery, iambs and rhyming couplets still sing in the dialogue.

ASF’s production of Timon is set, according to a press release, “in New York City at the Height of the Great Recession.” However befitting the play’s theme of the reversal of financial fortunes, the setting would not have been immediately clear to me from the setting, costumes, or direction — each of which seemed to waver among the styles of various periods. The original Greek setting is referenced with Athenian columns, but the play also features the exterior of a brick building with business blinds and all the soul of a local bank branch. That building spins around in the last act to reveal a graffiti-laced skid row, ironically decorated with posters for Broadway productions like Wicked and Les Mis.

The costumes ran from contemporary power suits (provided by The Locker Room) to the kind of rough hewn suits I associate with the early twentieth-century working-class back when everyone wore suits. There’s an amusing bit where the big wigs of Athens/New York are entertained by dancing ladies representing the five senses. Their pimp seemed dressed for a ’90s rave, while the dancers wore cabaret getup with tiny top hats, sparkly bustiers, ruffled bloomers, and striped thigh-high stockings, reminiscent of Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angle.

The acting itself varied from naturalistic performances with American and British accents to over-the-top caricatures of Joisey bagmen. In addition to Cochrane’s excellent performance as Timon, standouts include ASF’s Rodney Clark as the philosophizing Apemantus, Bjorn Thorstad and Alice Sherman as the amusing Poet and Painter, and Brian Wallace as 1st Senator (shout out to a fellow University of Montevallo graduate — Go Falcons!).

At play’s end, ASF’s producing artistic director Geoffrey Sherman led cast and audience in the singing of “Happy Birthday” to Shakespeare before retiring to a cupcake and champagne reception.

Jesseca Cornelson is an Assistant Professor of English at Alabama State University and is a resident of Cloverdale. She grew up in Mobile and did her graduate studies in the Yankee North, earning degrees at The Ohio State University and the University of Cincinnati. She blogged about her visits to Montgomery to do research at her now-defunct blog, Difficult History, and was a Platte Clove Artist-in-Residence, sponsored by the Catskill Center for Conservation and Development.

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  1. I went to see this today at the matinee with my son and found it transporting. I think this production is easily the best I had seen since I lived in London many moons ago and had ready access to performances of Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole and and Lawrence Oliver. The acting in Timon of Athens is impeccable. The actors and director had only worked out the last kink, including the score, only in the last few hours the other day. This Timon of Athens was the smoothest, most accessible and riveting performance I had ever seen at an venue, and I’ve lived in London and New York and Washington where performance arts are justly famed. This play simply the best. The audience owes Montgomery’s ASF a real debt. Timon of Athens is fabulous.

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