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OSF's 'Timon' right on the money

"Timon of Athens" is, on it’s surface, a play about money — having it, not having it, winning it and losing it. Although it is among Shakespeare’s least-produced plays, “Timon” is as timeless as man’s relationship to finance, power and patronage. The work focuses on the idea of a good-hearted but naive man of property, who lives and dies by his material wealth. Ensconced in a world of supposed abundance and privilege, he is never more tragic — or more free — than when he loses it all.

This is another one of those plays with a murky history. Not only is it relegated by some scholars into the “problem play” column in the canon (although originally grouped with the tragedies), but it is also thought to have been written by Shakespeare in collaboration with another author, Thomas Middleton, the prolific Jacobean era playwright.

Oregon Shakespeare Festival has mounted a thrilling new production of this vastly undervalued play. Under the direction of Amanda Dehnert (now in her fourth season at OSF) the show is visceral, angry and thoroughly modern; a hip and intensely ambitious undertaking that would be much at home at any world-city experimental theatre. By some brilliant piece of luck, it has arrived at the Angus Bowmer Theatre, instead. Whether our sometimes staid audience will be able to embrace the sort of cutting-edge excellence on display here remains to be seen.

Upon entering the theater, it was made evident to the assembled patrons (by way of a closed curtain emblazoned with a quote of Karl Marx) that Ms. Dehnert would not be taking any prisoners. When the curtain came up, and the action began, it was even clearer that Dehnert’s intentions were to take her cast, her audience, and anyone lucky enough to have an open mind to the proceedings that followed on a stripped-down joyride to the underbelly of monied society. Various ensemble characters leer and lurch as they do their damnedest to curry favor with the central character in the play, Timon (Anthony Heald). 

With the help of some inspired staging and costuming, Dehnert’s direction grabs the audience by the throat, and it doesn’t let us go for a full two and a half hours. In a harrowing journey that bounces from banquet table to boneyard, the assembled cast gives us a cheeky glimpse into a post-apocalyptic English-style dystopia that throws a nod and a wink not just to the legacy of Mr. Shakespeare, but also to the gritty literary traditions of Burgess, Orwell and Huxley.

An early scene involves various sycophantic attendees to a feast hosted by Timon, gorging on a barely deceased fatted calf, with the host positioned as a kind of hedonistic Christ figure. Later, gleeful puppeteers coerce a duo of gigantic marionettes into acts of simulated fellatio, while assorted onlookers gyrate in debauched consent. Dehnert yanks us out of the action with placards held by cast members, forcing us into our heads, only to fling us back into the uneasy morass of excess and agony that is Timon’s world. Brechtian staging techniques are intelligently utilized in order to help the observer keep their head about them as the carnage continues. 

There is much to be said for the cast of happy warriors willing to crest the razor’s edge with Dehnert. It’s clear that the director has walked her actors right to the edge of the cliff; their limits are being tested in the best possible way. But it’s Tony Heald — an artist long familiar to OSF audiences, and to the larger world of television and cinema — who truly steals the show with his brilliant, physical, startlingly brave portrayal of Timon. 

Mr. Heald has been in this acting business for a very long time, and it shows. Whether he is resplendent in his affluence or stripped almost naked in a pile of filth, he misses not a beat. Heald's Timon is a masterfully crafted example of a man undone — the mother of all midlife crises. Heald’s physicality as he heaves and rumbles around the stage is spellbinding; Stanislavsky is alive and well here, and I couldn’t help but wonder if our man would be able to leave his character behind on the stage when he goes home at night. 

Vilma Silva gives an inspired performance as Apemantus, the only sane voice in a confederacy of loons. As Flavius, the earnest and loyal servant to Timon, Robin Goodrin Nordli is touchingly stoic as her master descends into a cauldron of despair. Also to be commended are Sarah J. Brizek and Daniel T. Parker, who join Nordli as a toxic trio named Flaminius, Servilius, and The Jeweler, flocking obsequiously around Timon in search of favors. 

OSF’s production of “Timon of Athens” is must-see theatre for many reasons, not least of which is that it shows such searing parallels between Timon’s fate and that of many Americans in these unparalleled economic times. For an insight into the pathology of wealth and want, you could do far worse. 

Timon of Athens plays at the Angus Bowmer Theatre at Oregon Shakespeare Festival through Oct. 29.

Ashland resident Jeffrey Gillespie is a Daily Tidings columnist, arts reviewer and freelance writer. Email him at gillespie.jeffrey@gmail.com.