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Review - Chicago Shakespeare's Timon of Athens

Ian McDiarmid (center) with the ensemble.
Ian McDiarmid (center) with the ensemble.
Photo by Liz Lauren

Chicago Shakespeare Theater's staging of Timon of Athens


William Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens becomes Barbara Gaines’ Timon of Athens in the latest offering of Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Significantly edited to include a prologue and final scene nowhere to be found in the original text, there’s no doubt but that the production is accessible and entertaining. But it’s also lacking in a crucial definition of character – while Gaines uses vivid images to depict the titular character at his most philanthropic and his most misanthropic, she fails to unearth the core motivations for those two extremes. We see what Timon does quite clearly in Timon of Athens. Why he does it – the inner soul of the man- remains largely a mystery.

Timon of Athens is bookended by scenes not in Shakespeare’s play. At the onset, the audience is treated to the sight of a barrage of stock prices projected onto a neon scroll, traders frantically gesticulating as the market waxes and wanes. Timon industries, it would seem, is a mega-millions super corporation. Its CEO, we learn shortly, has a penchant for showy generosity. Gifting his guests at a lavish dinner with everything from his horse to “a brace of greyhounds,” Timon refuses to accept anything in return. When a servant reveals that a lack of funds is preventing his marriage to the woman he loves, when a friend languishes in debtors prison, Timon fixes all with an outpouring of funds. For this he is beloved – or at least, he has the perception of being beloved. What Timon is soon to find out, however, is that what is beloved is his money. The man himself is out in the cold – literally - once the well runs dry.

Chicago Shakespeare’s production has a substantial asset in Ian McDiarmid, who brings Timon to life with energy and complexity. It’s no easy task, morphing from benevolent to bitter in the course of a few scenes, but McDiarmid manages ably.

There’s more than a little of King Lear in Timon of Athens. Both former and latter are unwise in divesting their fortunes, both wind up railing and naked under the elements, cave-dwellers who have turned their backs on civilization. And both have a faithful servant who shows true loyalty amid a fickle circle of false friends. For Timon, that servant is Flavius (Sean Fortunato, nicely capturing the integrity and frustration of a genuinely caring man who is utterly stymied in his attempts to look out for his master’s best interests), the lone honest man in a swarm of sycophants. While the others help themselves to Timon’s largesse, Flavius tries to confront his master with the harsh realities of his empty coffers. Timon, of course, fails to heed him.

Fortunato’s not the only one to turn in some distinctive character work in the drama, which Gaines has put in a sleek, minimalist and sophisticated contemporary setting (set designer Kevin Depinet has created an environment that’s all polished edges and smooth surfaces). As the lone man who lavishes pointed criticism rather than fawning flattery on Timon, James Newcomb brings a sharp wit and a blunt honesty to the contrarian character of Apamantus. Amid the opportunist hangers-on who surround Timon, he’s a breath of fresh (albeit caustic) air. If Flavius is the soul of integrity, Apamantus has the heart of a true cynic. And as the soldier Alcibades, Danforth Comins has the requisite square-jawed profile and stalwart demeanor.

But although Timon of Athens benefits from several strong performances and a strong, contemporary concept, it falters in its incorporation of music. Gaines has threaded the script through with rock and electronica, harsh, disruptive sounds that don’t contribute to the story so much as they make it come to a complete halt. The music is jarring rather than seamlessly woven into the narrative - every time it starts the audience is abruptly removed from the action on stage. There’s also a bit of overkill in the song selection: Do we really need lyrics informing us that there are rats in the room every time Timon’s fair-weather friends start scuttling around the stage? And while black-feathered ballerinas twirling to an electronic version of Swan Lake make for a visually provocative interlude, they have little connection to the action. One suspects Gaines included it to illustrate the decadence with which Timon treats his guests, but as post-modern ballets go, this one feels like it wandered in from another show entirely.

Like Lear, Timon is left exposed to the elements, ranting at fortune and mankind in the final act. But it’s Flavius who gets the final, wordless moment here, significantly altering the ending Shakespeare wrote. In the text, Alcibades – like Fortinbras in Hamlet – gets the last word, the soldier offering wise words in the wake of a tragedy. Gaines has dispensed with Timon’s epitaph entirely, choosing instead to set up Flavius as the future star of Timon: the Sequel. It’s a valid choice, but it seems too easy. Far more difficult would have been to leave the audience with a clearer understanding of what drove Timon to such extremes of benevolence and consequent malevolence in the first place.

Timon of Athens continues through June 10 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand Ave., (Navy Pier), Chicago. Tickets are $44 - $75. For more information, go to or click here.

For more reviews of productions at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, click here (The Madness of King George III), here (As You Like It) here (Romeo and Juliet), here (The Taming of the Shrew), here (Richard III) , here (Macbeth), here (A Midsummer Night's Dream), here (Private Lives), here (Amadeus) and here (Funk it Up About Nothing). To read a review of playwright Alan Bennet's The History Boys, click here