Thursday, June 10, 2010

There goes whinin' Timon

Allyn Burrows as Shakespeare's tragic fragment.

People are often shocked by Timon of Athens - because it usually turns out to be so playable. Shakespeare veterans are less surprised - indeed, as I often comment, in performance the verities of middlebrow Shakespearean assumption are often up-ended; in my experience, Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth almost never work on stage. Meanwhile some of the best productions of the Bard I've ever seen have been of obscurities like Timon and King John.

I think just about everything Shakespeare wrote is worth doing, of course - even plays like this one, which is partly by Thomas Middleton (or so goes the current scholarly vogue). The great strength of Timon is the stream of eloquent invective in its second half, when its eponymous hero has been reduced to penury. After years of living large - largely via parties and gifts to his BFFs - Timon falls hard, abandoned by said fair-weather Fs, and spends the rest of the play in rags, atop a hoard of gold he has stumbled upon, venting his spleen in curses so mysteriously riveting that they could only be by Shakespeare. And of course his situation - Timon was generous to a fault when he was bankrupt, but now that he's rich again he's only willing to fund mankind's self-destruction - resounds with the kind of deep ironies we associate with the Bard at his best.

Beyond that, however, I think that Timon of Athens must be regarded as more a fragment than a play. It's all the more fascinating therefore, to my mind - it's like seeing one of Shakespeare's first drafts, or perhaps his first version of someone else's scenario (not an uncommon occurrence, probably). He has sketched in some speeches of astonishing power and sophistication, and suggested a sense of the piece's thematic structure. No doubt if he'd worked on it longer, he would have begun to weave his usual web of secondary characters and begun to elaborate his themes through the interwoven strands of a double, or even triple, plot. Slowly, methinks, the traces of Middleton (or whoever wrote most of the first half) would have vanished beneath the same dramatic embroidery that transformed, say, the "Ur-Hamlet" into Hamlet.

But Shakespeare gave up on Timon of Athens. Perhaps, as some have suggested, he saw that Timon was a dead end in tragic terms - or perhaps he couldn't conjure a proper Iago-like antagonist for him. What's clearly missing from the first half, it's true, is a sense of Timon's motivation - what's driving his folly? Shakespeare never tells us.

And neither does the Actors' Shakespeare Project's new version of the play, which, like the script itself, feels split in two: the first act is done in the company's standard style, with lots of self-conscious collegiate clowning, which doesn't really get us anywhere emotionally, even though it's structured via several very clever conceits. All the pratfalls fall away, however, in the starker, second half, when star Allyn Burrows often has the stage to himself, or shares it with another naturally fluent Shakespearean, Will Lyman. Their exchanges probably count as the strongest stuff ASP has done in some time, and may be the most unaffectedly mature work I've seen them do ever.

Of course there simply isn't the rhetorical material for that kind of acting in the first half - but the best productions of Timon compensate by creating a mise-en-scène which allows us to identify with his delusions without questioning them. A famous Stratford, Canada production located the play in an elegant 20's milieu, complete with an original score by Duke Ellington. An even better version at the same theatre plunked the play down in Steven Spielberg's and Steve Jobs's charity set, in which everyone was dedicated to fighting AIDS in Africa while nibbling hors d'oeuvres from Wolfgang Puck. This kind of staging elides the lack of character development in Timon, while making new to us the play's cold, central insight: that almost all fellow feeling is greased with a healthy dose of lucre. Some have argued from this premise that the play is an indictment of hedge funds and late capitalism. But it's not, not really; Timon's not an investment banker, and it's quite obvious that the sources of his wealth in both the first and second acts are utterly mysterious, and merely pretexts for his ruminations on mankind's moral character. The play, in short, is concerned with a flaw in the human heart that was manifest long before Bernie Madoff set up shop.

The ASP version of Timon's high-class milieu.

Perhaps director Bill Barclay knows this, but he doesn't let us sympathize with it. Barclay has cut the play well (if more conventionally than I think he realizes), and clearly understands it deeply, but he also gives us a first act that's styled as an epic-theatre clown show; Timon's friends are obviously double dealing, and his ship is obviously sinking - the production sees through the rich-and-famous lifestyle so completely, in fact, that we wonder why our hero can't. And in the meantime, Barclay has served up the piece as something like "Brecht does Everyman" (or maybe Ben Jonson) rather than Shakespeare-by-way-of-Middleton.

Which isn't to say that Barclay isn't full of good ideas. He is - I kept admiring what he was doing purely in intellectual terms, in fact, and the moment when the set came crashing down just as Timon's world did was an undeniable coup. Still, the broad playing gets repetitious - even if the cast is capable - and the crude hijinx sometimes seem to go wrong in tone. The giant surreal canvas that Barclay signals is to be taken as parody, for instance, looks a lot like de Chirico and Miró, with maybe some Kandinsky and Noland mixed in - does Barclay really think these people were charlatans? I don't.

As I said, however, these missteps are forgiven in the second act (the "Shakespeare part") particularly when Will Lyman's Apemantus is onstage. There were also solid turns from Daniel Berger-Jones and Bobbie Steinbach - although once again I missed a bit the sense of masculine camaraderie that is central to Shakespeare (he's often concerned with love between heterosexual men), and which ASP's cross-gender casting always seems to compromise. Meanwhile I felt star Allyn Burrows wasn't quite as rawly compelling as he could have been, as he never penetrated to the heart of Timon's agony; but he does coast beautifully across the surface of his speeches, and occasionally conjures some truly haunting moments. The finale was particularly effective - the exhausted Timon simply expires at the close of the play (just as he's about to achieve some measure of vengeance), which Burrows conveyed by burying his own head in the earth: a simple but devastatingly pregnant image. For a moment, you could feel Shakespeare pushing beyond the tragic and into the sadly absurd - before he abandoned this particular form forever (Timon is the last play before the romances). And it struck me that if the Actors' Shakespeare Project, which has a new artistic director in Burrows, can hew to the standard of its best work here (and in its last production, Othello), it may be about to embark on a new phase of its career, too.