Monday, January 15, 2018

Timon of Athens Would be a 1%er Now

Mary Ewald and Peter Crook in Timon of Athens (John Ulman)
Timon of Athens
Seattle Shakespeare Company
Through Feb 4, 2017

We all know that Oprah was born dirt poor and achieved the American Dream and is part of the 1%. Maybe some people like her because she’s rich and she’s generous and she might give them a car….. What if she suddenly ran out of money and could no longer be generous and it means you will definitely not get the car? Would you dislike her then?

Besides the “born poor” part of above, that is the situation that Shakespeare puts Timon (Tie-mun) in. Seattle Shakespeare Company is presenting Timon of Athens.

Timon thinks that generosity means to give and not to receive. I think a lot of us would agree in general with that sentiment, thinking that to turn generosity into a transaction – I give and then I get – would negate the generous nature of the gift. Timon thinks that by doing this giving, he is cementing his friendships. Then he finds out he’s spent himself into penury and everything is lost.

When Timon goes to his friends to ask for a portion of largesse back, they turn their pockets out and show him they are empty – for him. So Shakespeare has him go to the other extreme, renounce men, hate men, and declare that the riches themselves are the culprit. Even when a small handful of people show Timon that they really do love him, he can’t see it.

Timon is played by Mary Ewald and the play is directed by her husband John Kazanjian. They are a reliable theatrical couple. They’ve been producing theater non-stop for many years, here, and though many might not have gone to see the trenchant work they produced in their storefront theater off Union – now known as 18th and Union – they have chosen work that allows Ewald’s acting to shine.

In this version, she plays Timon “as” a man, but there are multiple subtle ways that the shift in casting alters the character. A male actor might have chosen to focus on Timon’s lack of inner questioning, bearing straight ahead at “giving” and never heeding his servant’s entreaties to slow down. Here, Ewald’s Timon uses his heart, instead, never allowing himself to believe badly of his friends, even when warned by his servant Flavius (Peter Crook). There’s a difference in motivation.

Often, Shakespeare’s plays have a subplot, and in this subplot, Alcibiades, also cast female with Julie Briskman, is a general who tries to save a soldier condemned to death for drunken debauchery. When he tries to bargain with the Senators and request that the soldier be allowed to die in war, instead, they irately banish him from Athens. Then Alcibiades turns his hate on Athens and works to bring an army from Sparta to attack Athens.

Alcibiades is usually an asshole, by history’s portrayal, and might have been more so in this play without the change in casting which made the friendship between Timon and Alcibiades more real. Alcibiades' change of heart at the end of the play, perhaps in homage to Timon’s generosity, is also tinged with more heart than might usually be present in a play with male casting.

This play is rarely done, so if one of your buckets included seeing live versions of all of Shakespeare’s play, you should definitely see it. It’s a pretty “talky” play and in some ways not a lot “happens.” But it’s solidly done overall. The supporting cast have to play dozens of people and there isn’t much that differentiates them, so it devalues the characters and leads to thoughts like “then why not cut them out?” The play is short and could be made shorter.

However, one of the pleasures of this production is the scene between misanthrope Apemantus (played by the venerated Michael Winters) and Timon as they spar over humanity and its worth. Philosophers will love these scenes!

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