Reversal of fortunes

Timon of Athens from Actors’ Shakespeare Project, Prelude to a Kiss from the Huntington
By STEVE VINEBERG  |  May 25, 2010

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TIMON OF ATHENS: Allyn Burrows explores Shakespeare’s bitterest verse with a rich and varied vocal palette.

Timon of Athens is Shakespeare’s least characteristic tragedy, and the toughest to pull off. In the first, flashy half, Timon treats his friends to extravagant dinners and showers them with gifts. The embodiment of the good life, an enthusiastic patron of the arts, he avoids thinking about the consequences of his spendthrift ways. When he goes broke, his companions turn their backs on him, so he abandons Athens, spending his bitter last days in a cave. The second half is a series of intimate episodes in which Timon is visited by a series of Athenian acquaintances. Some continue to want things from him. The others are his few true friends: his protégé Alcibiades, who, banished from Athens for taking the part of a comrade condemned to execution, is scaring up an army to attack the city; his devoted steward, Flavius; and the ornery, sharp-tongued Apemantus, whose bleak vision of humankind Timon now shares.

It’s that second part — unremittingly downbeat, devoid of grand theatrical set pieces until the finale — that makes Timon such a thorny proposition. But Bill Barclay’s new production for the always self-challenging Actors’ Shakespeare Project (at Midway Studios through June 13), reverses the odds: much of the first act is fatuous, but after a stunning visual coup just before intermission, the show improbably comes together. The second act is a knockout.

Barclay has pared the cast down to eight: the four principals and four ensemble players who cover all the smaller roles. The ensemble (consisting of Steven Barkhimer, John Kuntz, Joel Colodner, and Michelle Dowd) wear painters’ smocks and caps to which the costume designer, Anna-Alisa Belous, has added a retinue of assorted pieces to differentiate the characters — brightly colored vests, togas, top hats. The backdrop, which Barclay designed himself, is a surrealist rendering of a circus scene with two removable doors that double as banquet tables. A sandbox filled with earth resides downstage left; that’s where Apemantus sits when he consents to join Timon and his false friends for dinner. The furniture is ladders and benches. The idea seems to be that, since both the luxury in whose lap Timon is sitting and the friends with whom he surrounds himself are false, the environment should be threadbare — a sort of “Emperor’s New Clothes” version of the high life — and the Athenians merely play actors who append one item after another to their appearance. The circus canvas provides a (not too convincing) link to the theme of social intercourse as performance, but the meaning of the painter motif eluded me. So did Jeff Adelberg’s use of bold, almost Abstract Expressionist areas of color in the lighting. His design is striking and often beautiful, however, and you want to applaud when the canvas, monochromatic in the opening, footlit scene, bursts into unexpected Technicolor.

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