Timon of Athens
|David Sinaiko & Cast Members of Timon of Athens|
In the heart of the troubled Tenderloin with its camped-out homeless and strewn needles and not far from the world headquarters of Twitter with its techy, invading Millennials with pocketbooks often bulging, Cutting Ball Theater opens a tragic tale written over four hundred years ago with roots in ancient Athens in a modern version with aspects of the theater company’s immediate surroundings prevalent. William Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens – a play some dispute was in fact written entirely by the Bard – is one of his rarely staged tragedies with a story that many find clumsy with too many underdeveloped and unexplained plot lines and characters. However, under the inspired, creative, and envelope-pushing direction of Rob Melrose, Cutting Ball’s Timon of Athens is immediately recognizable as currently relevant and thought-provoking, even if some of its details are puzzling and hazy. Equally important, the production is a fascinating wonder to behold with production values high, a cast stellar to a person, and action that surrounds and involves the small and enraptured audience from opening lines to closing epitaph.
As soon as Brennan Pickman-Thoon appears in his high-style, off-white suit; round, wire-rimmed glasses; and carefully manicured beard of red to match his just-done hair, it is clear this citizen of so-called Athens, Timon, is as stylish and cool as any money-plenty twenty-something in our modern Baghdad by the Bay. His Timon with big smiles and bigger-than-life personality lavishes upon his friends a feast of sushi and saki, expensive gifts, and cash gratuities bounded by no budget – much to the growing concern of his assistant, the high-heeled, IPad-carrying Flavius (Courtney Walsh) in her own smartly tailored suit that has ‘designer-made’ written all over it. The coke-snorting, pill-popping host welcomes entertainers that have gay, edgy nightclub flair -- especially the bare-chested, angel-winged Cupid (an outrageously flamboyant John Steele, Jr.) – as the evening and following days becoming more and more decadent and digging into Timon’s cash reserves. The feast’s increasingly lecherous choreography (designed by Randee Paufve) becomes a dance foretelling troubles to come for the host, who centers himself mid-table as the lustiest of all the revelers.
|John Steele, Jr|
Entering with the ragged looks of a modern-day street dweller, a philosopher Apemantus (David Sinaiko) cynically proclaims upon seeing the madcap festivities, “What a sweep of vanity comes this way!” Later when asked what time it is, the barefooted, bedraggled Apemantus replies, “Time to be honest.” His ability to see through the false friends of Timon is ignored by the overly generous social butterfly, and his warning that “Timon, I fear me thou wilt give away thyself in paper shortly” is quickly ignored by Timon with “I am sworn not to give regard to you; farewell, and come with better music.” The Cassandras of San Francisco who cry out against the mounting encroachment of tech companies and their money-hungry minions probably feel equally ignored by and large.
But roosters do come home to roost, and Timon’s over-spending soon depletes his coffers. His so-called friends ignore him as cash runs thin, and those from whom he has borrowed money soon demand payments he no longer has. In one eye-catching scene, Timon’s servants and assistants move out of their quarters, packing away open, filled boxes with the shocked looks of techies just laid off and being asked to leave the company headquarters.
|Brennan Pickman-Thoon & David Sinaiko|
The transformation that Mr. Pickman-Thoon’s Timon undergoes as he withdraws to his own tent made of blue tarp outside the city walls is award-worthy. The anguish, despair, cynicism, and eventual revengeful anger that the now dirty, crouching, barely clothed Timon shows comes out in whispered words, breathy gasps, and invective diatribes that echo like thunder. The overall performance of Brennan Pickman-Thoon as Timon is well worth the price of the ticket and is certainly award-worthy.
|Ed Berkeley & Brennan Pickman-Thoon|
All of the other members of this fine cast step into multiple roles that are universally captivating – sometimes funny, often spell-bounding, always stunning in capturing both characters from this fable and those very familiar to anyone walking the streets of San Francisco. Ed Berkeley is a buffed-up military officer in dark glasses, Alcibiades, who is immensely loyal to his friend Timon and to his troops and ready to strike out in full force against anyone who harms either. Maria Ascención Leigh and Radhika Rao are smartly suited senators in red, white, and blue as well as whores and a friend or servant of Timon – each changing stance, looks, and personality in a flash to take on the next role with the required amounts vigor, sauciness, or sass. Douglas Nolan is an outrageously cocky and drugged-up Ventidius in his black leathers as well as a Southern-drawling senator as conservative sounding as any from today’s Alabama or Georgia.
Besides playing so well the carrot-carrying, insult-spewing philosopher and street person, Apemantus, David Sinaiko is hilarious as a wide-eyed servant to Ventidius. Adam Niemann is a poet who writes of Timon’s glory as long as the money well is full and flowing. He is also Timon’s servant, Servillius, who learns and must report the shallowness of his master’s once-and-supposed friends.
Everything about the actual production itself is first-class and high-class in a manner not expected for a theatre seating barely sixty people. The raised, “T”-shaped set designed by Michael Locher at times is authentically rich as marble seats and a table sitting below an incredibly beautiful chandelier of glass balls. At other times, the same set – with just the right switch of lighting and shadows -- is the barren earth, home to Timon’s self-banishment. That lighting design by Heather Basarab is itself high in style and modern in look with such touches as inlaid sconces donning marble-like columns, with light colors shifting to match the mood of the scene. Cliff Caruthers’s sound design transforms the small set into a raging nightclub or a scene of gun-ringing execution and dozens of effects in between. But the “Tony” of the night goes to Alina Bokovikova for an array of costumes that look as if they came from a Broadway stage.
Director Rob Melrose pulls out images from Shakespeare’s text to make powerful statements of the themes he wishes to emphasize that hit home in today’s San Francisco. Hunks of gold are tossed around to those whose lips ooze with greed but who have no gratitude upon receiving them, feeling they are owned to them. “Beasts” roam these streets of Athens -- beasts with two legs, who are out to take advantage of others. The pills popped, the designer-looking clothes, the juxtaposition of high-polished shine one might find in a luxury hotel with the grime and grit on streets outside – all of these have a place at one time or another in the fast-paced, five acts of Shakespeare collapsed to two; and they all have a say in making this yesteryear play completely contemporary.
Rare it is to hear of a local staging of Timon of Athens. In my own thirty-five or so annual visits to Ashland, I have only seen it once. Not only to be able to see a live production but to have the opportunity to see one that is so timely and wondrously conceived as this edgy, electric, and eye-popping version by Cutting Ball Theater is a gift to the Bay Area that audiences of all ages should not pass up. This is a “must-see” in my book.
Rating: 5 E, “Must-See”
Timon of Athens continues through April 29, 2018 by Cutting Ball Theatre at The Exit on Taylor, 277 Taylor Street, San Francisco. Tickets are available at www.cuttingball.com.
Photos by Liz Olson