How Do You Solve a Problem Like 'Timon of Athens'?

Timon (Brennan Pickman-Thoon) and Flavius (Courtney Walsh) argue over next steps in 'Timon of Athens' at Cutting Ball Theater. (Liz Olson/Cutting Ball Theater)

One of Shakespeare’s least-produced plays, Timon of Athens has several strikes against its popularity. Possibly unfinished, the play is thought to have been partially written by prolific Jacobean playwright Thomas Middleton, and doesn’t appear to have ever been performed during Shakespeare’s time. Its also difficult to categorize: Timon is sometimes labeled a tragedy, sometimes a “problem play,” and rarely ever someone’s “favorite.”

Even so, it's been on the shortlist for Cutting Ball Theater’s co-founder Rob Melrose since 2000, when the then-fledgling company was tapped to stage a reading of the work for the Bay Area Shakespeare Marathon, and it was a surprise hit.

Now, on the verge of Cutting Ball’s 20-year anniversary, Melrose’s adaptation of Timon of Athens is both a testament to the experimental nature of his brainchild company (slated to turn over to associate artistic director Ariel Craft in July), and a reflection of the economic disparities that characterize his adoptive neighborhood, the Tenderloin, where Cutting Ball resides at EXIT on Taylor.

Brennan Pickman-Thoon as Timon of Athens. (Liz Olson/Cutting Ball Theater)

When we first meet Timon (Brennan Pickman-Thoon) he’s jovial, benevolent. He pays out gold to cover a friend’s debt, increases the status of a manservant that he might wed, then invites everyone over for a feast at his expense. Clad in neat, inoffensive grayscale and expensive sneakers, he’s the very model of a modern-day, tech-minted millionaire. The citizens of Athens, all too happy to avail themselves of his seemingly bottomless generosity, carouse with him and sing his praises — all except the ragged philosopher of the street, Apemantus (David Sinaiko), whose ill-tempered pronouncements offer ignored foreshadowing of Timon’s eventual downfall.

While Timon as careless spendthrift is as colorless as his tailored suit, Apemantus as oracle is vulgar, florid, and dynamic, cursed like Cassandra to be disbelieved as he looks into the hearts of Timon’s inner circle and finds them hollow. “Who lives that's not depraved or depraves?” he demands, as a cupid in silver disco chaps (John Steele Jr.) gyrates across the platform thrust of the stage (designed by Michael Locher) as if on a catwalk. Melrose deftly transplants this ancient bacchanal to the decadent excesses of the Bay Area elite, complete with wedge-heeled dancing girls, Venetian party masks, and a blowhard in a custom leather vest (Douglas Nolan, as Ventidius), who busts out an opportune baggie of cocaine, aka “four milk-white horses, trapped in silver.”

Cupid (John Steele, Jr.) struts the catwalk. (Liz Olson/Cutting Ball Theater)

It isn’t until Timon’s swift fall from favor once his money runs out that the play really comes into its own. Described by Shakespearean scholar G. Wilson Knight as a “pilgrimage of hate,” Timon’s descent into poverty and justifiable indignation of his so-called friends’ refusal to help in his time of need rivals Lear’s downward spiral. In his “cave” crafted of blue tarp, his clothing reduced to rags, talking frequently to himself, he cuts an all-too familiar figure of urban impoverishment. In just a few scenes he’s gone from one extreme to the other, a fact that Apemantus remarks upon when he comes to visit and trade comically caustic insults.

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Historically, the problem of Timon of Athens is that the play never resolves itself in a truly satisfactory manner. The titular character dies almost of spite before the other plot threads come to an end, and much of the dialogue is so gleefully absurd as to make characterizing it a tragedy nigh impossible. Even so, under Melrose’s sure direction, the able ensemble cast skillfully morphs from lords to servants, senators to soldiers; a few astutely chosen costume pieces (provided by Alina Bokovikova and Erika Mae Martin) anchoring their transformation. Courtney Walsh, in a scene-stealing performance as Timon’s faithful steward, Flavius, offers the audience more nuanced context on her employer’s character than he is able to provide on his own, while Ed Berkeley, as the exiled Alcibiades — who bears a chip on his shoulder almost as large as Timon’s — swaggers in the spotlight, a conqueror in the making.

Timon (Brennan Pickman-Thoon) toasts his guests. (Liz Olson/Cutting Ball Theater)

As the lead, Pickman-Thoon plays to his extremes admirably, from generous benefactor to indigent recluse. But what his Timon possibly lacks is a middle range of emotions. He’s so eventually consumed with pure vitriol, it leaves little room for him to express shades of sorrow, enlightenment, or true self-awareness. This is a detriment in one sense, and yet his inability to see beyond his limited perspective cements him very much in the here-and-now, where crafting the perfect Twitter bio passes for self-examination, and disregarding the counsel of others is a national pastime.

Overall, Melrose’s triumphal close to Cutting Ball’s 19th season offers both a rare chance to see a little-performed Shakespearean work, and an opportunity to examine our own attitudes regarding the acquisition and unequal distribution of wealth — in a neighborhood that exemplifies and amplifies the realities of both.

'Timon of Athens' runs through Sunday, April 29, at Cutting Ball Theater. Details here.

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