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OSF stages rarely produced 'Timon of Athens'

For William Shakespeare fans intent on seeing every play in The Bard's canon, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is serving up the rarely staged "Timon of Athens."

But officials at OSF also hope audiences will identify with the main character and the situations he faces in the problematic play, which officially opens at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, July 31, in the Angus Bowmer Theater on the OSF campus, 15 S. Pioneer St., Ashland.

Timon is a wealthy, generous Athenian who lavishes gifts and money on his many friends. But when the money runs out, his so-called friends desert him.

"'Timon of Athens' doesn't feel like a lot of Shakespeare plays," says Lezlie Cross, dramaturg for the OSF production. "It unflinchingly looks at the world and at economics with no distraction like a love plot or a war. It's a very powerful look at what happens when you lose all your money and how your friends change based on your relative value in the world."

In the beginning of the play, Timon's wealth and generosity seem to know no bounds. He bails a friend out of jail and is a patron of the arts, buying paintings and jewelry and paying poets to write, she says.

Timon is shocked to discover he has been living on credit.

"Especially given the economic climate we've all lived through, it feels very pertinent to our modern economy," Cross says. "People are able to live on credit — until the creditors show up on their door hounding them for money. In 'Timon of Athens,' creditors show up and try to beat him up. Anybody who's ever had a debt collector call knows the sense of helplessness."

Amanda Dehnert directs this OSF production, with previews set for 1:30 p.m. Thursday, July 28, and 8 p.m. Friday, July 29. Tickets are $30 to $123 and can be purchased online at osfashland.org or by calling 800-219-8161.

Timon becomes essentially homeless and goes to live in a cave, where he rails against humanity.

Cross said scholars believe the play was a collaboration between Shakespeare and playwright and poet Thomas Middleton. Elements of writing as well as the tone of the play point to Middleton's role in its creation.

"Knowing some of Thomas Middleton's work, the bitter, sarcastic, cynical tone is more Middleton's," Cross says. "There are definitely parts that are so real and ironic they become funny."

She notes there is no record of the play being performed during Shakespeare's day.

Shakespeare was likely collaborating on the play during the same period he worked on "King Lear." Disaster and tragedy befall the king when he disowns his favorite daughter because she is not effusive enough in professing her love for him.

The king and Timon are similar in that each man has everything in the beginning, Cross says.

Stage, screen and television actor Anthony Heald is taking on the role of Timon for OSF's production after playing King Lear for California Shakespeare Theater in 2015. His many roles include performing in "The Elephant Man" with Bradley Cooper on Broadway.

Cross says at the time Shakespeare was writing "Timon of Athens," he was a part of the King's Men — the most important theater company in England.

"The idea of flatterers and flattery is a big part of this play. Given that he was a member of King's Men, he spent a lot of time at court. He would have observed that going on in court," she says.

Shakespeare himself was an astute businessman who managed his money well and didn't appear to succumb to Timon's foibles.

To further dramatize the play and make it relevant to today's audiences, Cross says the set and costumes are reminiscent of "The Hunger Games" movies. The series of films is based on a set of books about a world of extreme differences in wealth, where impoverished workers struggle in colonies ruled by a decadent, extravagant upper class.

Scenic design is by Daniel Ostling, costume design by Mara Blumenfeld and lighting by Jane Cox. Josh Horvath is composer and sound designer.

"Timon" was last staged at in 1997 at the festival.

“It’s a lot of argument and great debate," Dehnert says. "It doesn’t have any easy answers, and it’s not supposed to. But if it’s working right, you should absolutely identify with everybody in it.”

This production helps fulfill OSF's goal — announced in 2015 — to perform all 37 plays in Shakespeare's canon in just 10 years. Some Shakespeare fans spend decades devoted to their quest to see all the plays.

"If people are interested in seeing all of Shakespeare's plays, this is a good time to see it," Cross says.