Timon of Athens

By - Sep 7th, 2007 02:52 pm
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Regarded by many scholars as an unfinished, perhaps experimental piece that may not have been entirely written by Shakespeare, Timon of Athens has great potential to be staged in an offbeat style. American Players Theatre in Spring Green has brilliantly realized this potential in what is by far its most accomplished production this season. This year, the APT has fallen a bit short of its usual standards. Timon of Athens goes a long way towards making up for any shortcomings it may have presented in its 2007 season.

Aside from a decidedly modern-looking set, the audience’s first indication of the setting shows up in the usual “turn off your cell phones” announcement, cleverly delivered here as a polite notice from one of the title character’s servants. As the audience, we are all greeted as guests of Timon and encouraged to enjoy ourselves. When characters begin to filter onstage, the overall feeling is that of a posh, contemporary dinner party. All the guests are dressed in white except the Painter and the Poet, who reflexively dress in a classy, reflexively nonconformist black. The Painter (Matt Schwader) carries a tiny black leather portfolio. The Poet (Michael Gotch) carries around a black portfolio of his own that holds a disheveled stack of papers. Gotch and Schwader are brilliantly subtle here, delicately playing the part of pretentiously successful contemporary art-world hipsters – the kind you see nervously shuffling about the Third Ward on gallery night.

Eventually, of course, the title character shows up in the form of a jovial Brian Mani. Mani has a very robust presence in the role, lending an earthy believability to the overwhelming generosity that is Timon’s tragic flaw. Just as Timon’s guests sit to eat at the banquet of his wealth, in walks Jonathan Soots in the role of true individualist Apemantus — a philosopher. There’s not a whole lot of money in philosophy, so Apemantus has little regard for it; he snacks idly on a carrot, acting as an upstage critic to the pretentious proceedings at center stage. With a presence and comportment vaguely reminiscent of a contemporary Mark Twain, Smoots puts in a pleasantly detached performance as he warns of the treachery of bought friendship.

Of course, this being Shakespearian tragedy, Apemantus’s concerns turn out to be valid, and before long, Timon loses all the wealth he ever had. We catch up with him after the intermission on a set that is a dark aberration of the finely appointed atmosphere that started the play. A rusted-over wheelchair tilts in one corer of the stage. Empty cans litter the stage with other detritus. Mani plays the generous Timon now as a surly, soiled misanthrope with a fabulously twisted sense of humor. Inevitably, Timon happens upon a stash of bills – more accursed money, which brings on all those people he never wanted to have to deal with again. The Poet and the Painter show up right away, appearing first offstage, rustling through the foliage around the outdoor theatre. Gotch’s performance in this portion of the play is absolutely priceless, as is Mani’s – at one point he’s prostrate on stage, focusing on something intently as he carries on a conversation. Without warning in the middle of the conversation, he pops up and sails a paper airplane into the audience fashioned from one of the many unwanted bills he uncovered. This is funny, irreverent stuff.

As unfinished as the play seems, the ending is remarkably well handled. James Ridge (who plays Timon’s steward Flavius) moves with a precision akin to ballet, performing motions that are natural and organic, but nonetheless lend a profound sense of closure to the whole play. In just a few seconds, Ridge gives a brilliant performance that turns out to be integral to the production.VS

The American Players Theatre’s production of Timon of Athens runs now through September 29th in Spring Green, Wisconsin. Tickets can be purchased by calling the ticket office at 608588-2361 or online at www.playinthewoods.org

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