The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, in their effort to produce the entire Shakespeare canon every decade, occasionally has to dust off one of Shakespeare’s far lesser-known works and attempt to breathe some life into it for a modern audience. Timon of Athens is one such play, and while OSF’s production isn’t exactly riveting, it’s a highly interesting evening of theatre that proves that the show is more than just a curiosity.
Timon of Athens is a fascinating work among Shakespeare’s canon. Concerning a wealthy Athenian who is far too generous with his money, the play tracks Timon after he cannot pay his debts and realizes that his friends were only actually after his money. Initially, this seems like a classic Jacobean tragedy, but Shakespeare pulls the rug out from underneath the form by not allowing the main character to move from ignorance to awareness. Timon initially believes that mankind is totally good, and later believes that mankind is totally evil, but Shakespeare makes it clear that neither philosophy is accurate, instead portraying the world as complicated and intricate. The play ends with Timon no more aware of the world around him, only more miserable.
The play really serves as the pre-cursor to the Epic theatre established by Bertolt Brecht. From the intensely verbose and didactic prose to the complicated theme at the heart of the work, the threads that Brecht would eventually weave into works like Mother Courage and Her Children are all on display in Athens.
Amanda Dehnert’s production is anything but naturalistic, with an Orwellian-minded design and modernist renditions of American standards in between scenes. From the moment you walk in to the theatre and see an enormous quote from Karl Marx on the show’s curtain, you know you are in for something interesting.
These flourishes serve not to bring you closer to the material, but to push you as far away from the characters as possible. There was not a single moment where I felt anything close to empathy for those onstage—even as they wallow in misery—but this is by no means a bad thing. By removing the emotional component, the audience can intensely focus on Shakespeare’s intent in telling this particular tale. This allows for the play’s firmly anti-tragic purpose to be revealed with little to no ambiguity and leaves much for the viewer to process on their way home.
As is predictable, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has given the show everything they’ve got, and the results are excellent. The 12-member cast is excellent all-around, featuring an appropriately overwrought titular performance from Anthony Heald and an absolutely perfect Flavius from Robin Goodrin Nordli.
While you should come to the theatre with your thinking cap on and your heart put on hold, Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Timon of Athens proves that the play should be important to more than just Shakespeare purists.
Timon of Athens runs through October 29th. Click here for tickets and info.