Timon of Athens
By Justin Hayford
It's time for the City Council to pass an Anti-Hyperbole Act and direct it squarely at Shakespeare Repertory's marketing department. Its poster for Timon of Athens outside the Ruth Page Theater claims that the play has never been performed in Chicago before, suggesting that the company has researched the production histories of every professional, amateur, and student theater that's mounted a play within the city limits over the last 160 years. The poster also calls Timon of Athens "Shakespeare's neglected masterpiece," ignoring the fact that Shakespeare himself initiated the neglect--and with good reason.
Written around 1607, Timon of Athens relentlessly indicts the nobility's penchant for hollow flattery and abject self-preservation, reading like a dry run for King Lear. As far as is known, it was never performed during Shakespeare's lifetime, and considering several unbrilliant stretches in the text, it seems likely that he gave up on the play after an initial draft. As a historical record of Shakespeare's working process, this drama is invaluable. But the world's greatest playwright knew the difference between a masterpiece and a failed attempt.
The genius of this production by British director Michael Bogdanov--or, more accurately, the first three acts of his production--is its complete lack of hyperbole. And God knows the play invites exaggeration on just about every level. Timon, an Athenian nobleman, is a cartoon of generosity, throwing lavish feasts, bailing people out of jail, offering dowries for various people's daughters, and handing out jewels to the Athenian upper crust. Through it all the dyspeptic Apemantus buzzes like a swarm of locusts, cursing Timon's false friends for their duplicitous fawning and lambasting Timon for his blindness to their servile dishonesty. The pessimism in Shakespeare's script is as thick as cement.
Yet in Bogdanov's whirling, all-too-familiar world of power and prestige, flattery seems as natural as breathing. Updating the play to contemporary times, he makes Timon a corporate mogul sauntering about in a white silk suit while assorted businessmen and elected officials feed at the trough of his self-gratifying largesse. They convene at a long black table, polished to mirrorlike perfection, where they drink expensive wines, watch strippers, and embrace one another roughly. They have all the unctuous congeniality of the well-tailored men who nightly clog the Rush Street hangouts just a few blocks from the theater. This Timon is no naive spendthrift, as some critics through the years have made him out to be. Instead he's a well-connected high roller so accustomed to displaying his power that he gives away everything he owns before he knows what's hit him.
Bogdanov's all-male network is well realized, so smarmily accurate it makes the skin crawl. His cast, led by the polished Larry Yando as Timon, find the theatrical flair in repeated displays of ordinariness; these men lack anything approaching personality. In the world of capital, as Bogdanov understands, mediocrity rises to the top.
Yet the nuanced verisimilitude of the first three acts is also the play's ultimate undoing. When Timon realizes he's in debt up to his ears, and furthermore that none of his former friends will lend him a penny, he curses all mankind, trundles off to the woods, retires to a cave (here an abandoned car), and eats roots until he dies. But the character Bogdanov has conceived would never follow such a course--he'd file a quick Chapter 13 and get a cool million-dollar advance on his autobiography. Even if no publisher would bite, a benefactor could be found for any man with that much power and influence; even penniless, this Timon would be a sweet investment. The world that Bogdanov has created makes Timon's tragic downfall utterly implausible.
It doesn't help matters that in the final two acts hyperbole rules the stage. Timon spends the hour snarling, growling, spitting, and screaming when he's not stumbling about in a parody of mental illness. Yando's sophisticated choices during the first three acts disappear, to be replaced by bulging eyes and hyperventilation. As Timon rails against the falsehood of men--becoming in essence a parody of the already exaggerated Apemantus--his invectives become hysterical spew, lacking the satiric edge that might give the latter half of the production some scope.
In short, the play's focus shifts from a privileged society--Shakespeare's intended target--to a deranged individual. Bogdanov creates an intriguing world of power and entitlement and then drops it, a path the text nearly forces him to take. He's picked the wrong play to investigate this pocket of American society. Let's hope he comes back to town next year with King Lear under his arm.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo by Peter Bosy.