Shakespeare completionists surely took note when Cutting Ball Theater announced Timon of Athens as part of their 2017–18 season. It’s a difficult one to check off your see-them-all list: a few dozen Hamlets and Macbeths get produced for every time someone is brave enough to mount this “problem play.” Directed and cut by Cutting Ball co-founder Rob Melrose, it’s still bizarre and problematic, but also exciting and poetic.
Timon of Athens drips with cynicism. The rich Lord Timon denies his friends and sycophants nothing, entertaining lavishly and returning every gift twentyfold. Having squandered his entire fortune, he turns to his friends for aid, but they all refuse. He retreats into a cave, where he vents his misanthropy on anyone who dares to approach. Of course, the once-wealthy always have resources: the gods drop gold upon Timon, and the government, when threatened, entreats him to accept a position. In his disillusionment, he stubbornly rejects all help, giving the gold to thieves, whores, and an invading army, in hopes of speeding the city’s destruction.
When Timon is left penniless, his cave is—what else?—a tarp tent, reminiscent of many I walked past on my way out of the Tenderloin-based theater.
Melrose sets his production in San Francisco “a few years in the future, at a time when the forces of income inequality have been left to grow unabated.” (Except for some swoonworthy capes and neo-Victorian fashion details by Alina Bokovikova, the setting might as well be the present.) Timon comes from tech money; his servants sport iPads and Google Glass. He feasts his friends on sushi and sake in a minimalist marble hall lit by geometric chandeliers. Hamilton programs serve as shorthand for characters’ comfortable wealth. When Timon is left penniless, his cave is—what else?—a tarp tent, reminiscent of many I walked past on my way out of the Tenderloin-based theater.
The high life in San Francisco (before Timon’s fall) is one big party. Catchy music and fearless dancing had the audience clapping and whooping along. The actors brought ferocious energy to the tragedies as well as the parties. Brennan Pickman-Thoon’s Timon journeyed from placid self-assurance to frenzied spleen, while his steward Flavius (Courtney Walsh) helplessly tried to prevent (and then soothe) his ruin with her authoritative tones and hidden emotional depths. The beggar-fool-soothsayer Apemantus (David Sinaiko) cheerily munched carrots while hurling invective and prophesying doom. The rest of the cast brilliantly created a host of other characters with a wide varied of tics, accents, and speech patterns: a rich, lecherous heir; a yoga-practicing senator; a very meta poet (who was writing Timon of Athens); an angel-garbed bawd with great dance moves; and many more. Each was given vivid life, even if they only appeared for a few lines.
Nothing much gets resolved in Timon of Athens. Timon dies bitter and poor, with only his faithful steward for company. The promise of Alcibiades’ revenge on his fair-weather friends rings hollow. If such a hopeless ending leaves you feeling cynical and misanthropic like Timon, the play also suggests a cure. Just follow the advice Timon repeatedly gives (but inexplicably never takes): for unconditional love, get a dog.