Thursday, August 25, 2011

Timon’s Timeless Rage

Timon of Athens
By William Shakespeare
As performed by the
Hudson Shakespeare Company (website here:
August 12, 2011 in Van Vorst Park, Jersey City

I saw the rehearsal (here) for Timon of Athens. I’ve been meaning to go to one of these al fresco theater experiences and since I recently read the play, thus it is fresh in my mind, I decided to go to a Van Vorst performance.

A splendid August evening, no rain, little humidity. Started at 7:00 and ran a brisk two hours and fifteen minutes. No stage. Those portable dressing screens were set up, doubling as the wall of castle (s) and later as the wall around the city of Athens. No microphones, which was at times slightly irritating, because of the traffic noise and the propensity for pedestrians walking by or sitting on the closest benches to not shut up.

After the first couple of scenes I moved closer and sat on the grass (mental note, next year bring a blanket or tarp) so at least the latter was problem was mostly alleviated. Actors prone to the stage as opposed to screen are known to love Shakespeare.

Shakespeare's language, while sometimes archaic is so poetic, especially with the inversion of phrases, has a flowing aspect, especially when the Bard’s at his best.

As a reader or play goer, it may take a bit before you get into the language but once you are there, attained the ear, the action moves. The language is so beautiful, it is easier to read than some Joyce or Faulkner and as Harold Bloom says, the only response is “one of awe.”

I think the reason his language works and will always work is that the writing actually resembles how the mind works. This theory needs further formulation. The lines erupt like extended spurts of flowing lava. It’s a rush to follow, almost always more fun to hear than to read. This troupe was spot on. Such a difficult environment to overcome. The lack of amplification was at times an impediment, though to be fair other times the unmodified human voice enhances Shakespeare’s language. To Project is the thespian mission, but here they were able to speak loudly enough to be heard, sustain that essentially unnatural volume for the entirety of the story and yet this extreme projection had to sound natural. The combination of complex language and need for volume means that recitation is more paramount then the acting but they overcame this potential obstacle. You were absorbed in the language, characters and story. Disbelief was soon suspended. These kids can act.

Timon of Athens is set in ancient Greece, but the setting here was updated to a kind of roaring 20s, probation era gangster, which invokes Boardwalk Empire, as well as the original Scar Face and the Great Gatsby. This updating of Shakespeare’s settings is often called high-concept, but this was basically in Van Vorst Park so concepts can only get so high. Overall, the updating was effective especially in terms of casting. Timon is alone in all of Shakespeare is that there are no major women characters; the only females in the play are whores, which are minor roles. The Hudson troupe, a small but dedicated group of comrades, have both sexes of course and several of the actors and actresses play multiple minor role parts, removing some of the limits the author put on this play.

The Jazz Age setting and costumes was even more effective with the casting of an actress in the role of Flavius, the loyal servant of Athens. A woman in this role alleviates the unintended homoeroticism that might arise in an ancient Greek milieu. Her sincere and unyielding fidelity to her master no matter the extent of his madness think of Rosemary Woods, Fawn Fall and even Condoleezza Rice.

Timon is an Athenian leader whose greatest virtue, generosity is the key to his undoing. When he finds out he has no more money left, he sends Flavius to friends thinking they are as benevolent as he but they refuse to help and the benevolence turns into hatred not just for his fake friends but all of humanity. He becomes his id. An early scene is of a lavish dinner party where Timon is giving away money, his last party he serves his Athenian friends water and stones, then he leaves the city, wandering outside the walls of the city where finds gold. Shakespeare seems to both echo ancient Greek Plays and anticipate surrealism with this theatrical device.

Timon simply finds the gold by “digging” in the ground, which was simply pantomimed on the Van Vorst lawn. He gives money to the concubines of Alchibades, a soldier (here he was dressed in a khaki uniform, which may have been a WWI veteran,) to fund his attack on Athens. That is the revenge of Timon, how he ultimately expresses his rage at his ex-friends, by waging a ceaseless war against not just them, but their entire city and way of life. It’s up to Flavius and others to convince Timon to stop, and he finally dies, off stage, an apparent suicide because even he can’t live with himself.

The play is unnerving, we never really know why Timon decides to cease his hatred and thus his funding of attack on a city that rejected him. He leaves an epitaph for his tombstone that proclaims himself to be a “wretched bereft soul,” which all of “mankind did hate,” but then welcomes passerby’s to “curse their fill,” but warns them against tarrying over his tomb. Is this some final redemption or the fulfillment of this man’s utter nihilism. It’s considered a problem play and is believed to be the one play never to have performed during the bard’s lifetime. Bloom says it is unfinished. I find it heart wrenchingly provocative.

Coincidently I first read it at the start of the summer, and couthought about it a lot, then was again reminded of its gnarly ambiguity when I caught the rehearsal and contemplated its various messages again after seeing the live in the park performance.

Unlike Lear or Coriolanus or Hamlet, there is nothing gradual about Timon’s descent into madness. It is sudden, not really explained in the text. It’s A to B to C, he’s kind, when he needs kindness he is abandoned, result, the rage he feels is uncontrollable. It is up to the actor to make this abrupt transformation convincing and here the young artist did that, adding an antic edge (like Jim Carrey) that was present throughout, especially in the early scenes of his charity, a rather satisfying performance choice – the intent was different – altruism then hatred – but the edginess was tangible in both phases.

The Flavius portrayal seemed to be the audience, she makes us sympathize with Timon. He is the sort of man only his mother (or sister) could love, kudos for the casting and the performance, which also enhances the unnerving aspect of this play – we may resist sharing the anger and hatred of Timon, but we cannot evade our identification with those dark emotions or their intent of utter destruction.

Timon spends the final two acts with exhortations and cursing, while Flavius spends her time beseeching. Apemantus, a cynical philosopher who is sort of a bill collecting lawyer in this incarnation but that might be my reading into it, had some really funny repartee with Timon trading very odd, very Shakespearean insults (Timon: All villains that do stand by thee are pure!/Apemantus: “There is no leprosy but what thou speak’st.) On the lawn, the two players played this scene wonderfully, taking long pauses, walking back and forth on the lawn, in and out of “Center” stage in-front of the dressing dividers now in this cases imagined to be the impenetrable wall of Athens. Neither wants to give the other the last word, but the physical acting displayed here added to the text, and the overall entertainment experience and knowingly turned the lawn as stage into a dramatic advantage.

Alchibades, the soldier or bandit Timon employs to wage his proxy war against the city that forsakes him was also the centerpiece of an interesting addition to this rendition of the play. Timon’s gold enables Alchibades to hire bandits, weapons, etc., but he has his own reasons to despise the senators and other leading Athenians. Lines in the play imply the leaders wrongly executed a comrade. The Hudson Players version of the play used a wordless, choreographed scenario depicting this execution, which not only was well executed physical acting, and a short respite from the flowing, complex language but it drew me closer to the play. With all the verbal volleys I was following, I was suddenly confronting pantomime story telling. The not knowing, the figuring out that was necessary to follow not just the nonverbal scene but then to connect to the verbal storyline, focused my attention. Really clever stagecraft – pretty good for a play without a stage – giving Alchibades more of clear motive seriously added to this play, which is a commentary on the repercussions of revenge.

My only complaint is the lack of amplification, which honestly is a minor complaint. This al fresco performance had such a genuine purity to it. Most importantly, it deeply increased my appreciation of this great, albeit problem play.

Unnerved, swatting away mosquitoes, night had fallen. Timon is a play that just gets darker, the summer night was an astutely complementary backdrop to the tragic going-ons. The staging resembled the 20s, thus Gatsby, who yearned to “repeat the past.” But there are forces that we cannot escape, either Gatsby or Timon. With the latter, rage no matter how justified has the potential to control any one of us. In a time of economic uncertainty, where bill collector is one of the few employment opportunities that are growing, the story of unleashed rage that destroys Timon (and just about destroys everyone he encounters) is more relevant than ever.

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