Stratford, Ontario — There are many reasons Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens is little-known and rarely performed. In fact, it is so unpopular that the 65-year-old Stratford Festival, which specializes in the Bard’s works, has only produced Timon four times. When a play has no single villain, no romantic subplot, few female parts, little, if any, comedy, and a pessimism that is practically scalding, it is difficult to argue for its presence on summer playbills.
Despite all of that, it is still Shakespeare, it has a story (if done properly) that moves audiences, and its themes of wealth and friendship continue to be timely.
It is this greedy timeliness that director Stephen Ouimette taps into for his second shot at the play since his 2004 Stratford version by setting it in modern dress and peppering the production with selfies, cellphones, virtual reality rigs, and earbuds in case you missed the here-and-now point of the show.
The first half of the play is about Timon’s (Joseph Ziegler) naïve philanthropy, and the second half is all about his blazing misanthropy. You see, Timon equates money and gifts with friendship, so when he loses his lucre, he expects a return on his investment from his buddies. When they turn their silken, skinny-suited backs on their previous benefactor, Timon rages Lear-like against an unfair world.
Ouimette, perhaps better known to some as the voice of the animated version of Beetlejuice, and to others (myself included) as a major character on the Stratford-themed Canadian television series, Slings and Arrows. He is a Stratford stalwart as an actor, and proves by this production that he has a gift for directing to the aesthetic.
To maintain the four-sided sightlines in the theater, the set (Dana Osborne) is simple, yet elegant with a blue, marble-like floor, white-cushioned, modern furniture, and cold, nouveau light fixtures. Thomas Ryder Payne’s sound design and Kimberly Purtell’s lights keeps the mood appropriately disco or downfall.
This show wants to be a flashy musical, which kind of works for the first half, and sets up the starkness of the second half quite well. The early dance number (movement by Adrienne Gould) is one the hottest things I’ve seen on stage.
Performances from this well-timed ensemble are strong. Ziegler is more than believable in his polar opposite iterations of bon vivant and cussing curmudgeon. Ben Carlson’s cynical, and plain dealing Apemantus is an island of rationality in a sea of turmoil, and Michael Spencer-Davis as Timon’s most loyal servant, Flavius mirrors the audience’s exasperation quite well.
The only disappointment is army man Alcibiades (Tim Campbell), who is too stiff for Ancient Greece’s most flamboyant general.
Despite all of Timon’s negatives, perhaps the strongest argument for producing it is that it is so obscure. As Ouimette argues, “Audience members coming to it will actually be seeing it for probably the first time…and be surprised by Shakespeare.” That’s pretty good for a 400-year-old play.