Timon of Athens
Timon of Athens. By William Shakespeare. Directed by Bob Melrose. Cutting Ball Theater, 277 Taylor Street, San Francisco, California.
Cutting Ball Theater closes its 2017-2018 season with a spectacular production of Shakespeare’s seldom seen Timon of Athens. It’s astounding in its direction by returning Founding Artistic Director Bob Melrose and one of the finest acting performances of the new year by Brennan Pickman-Thoon.
Melrose has been on a collision course with this production since coordinating a staged reading of the play for the Bay Area Shakespeare Marathon in 2000. He cut and streamlined the first three acts to get to the meatier acts four and five. Now his amazing vision of Shakespeare’s darkly poetic introspection on loyalty and wealth bursts forth in futuristic San Francisco where economic inequality has reached its zenith.
Timon (Brennan Pickman-Thoon), is a rich philanthropist, wildly generous with his largesse. He’s surrounded by takers, eager to eat, drink and make merry on his dime. The excellent ensemble cast (Radhika Rao, Douglas Nolan, Adam Niemann, John Steele Jr. and Maria Ascension Leigh) play numerous roles as Senators, artists, thieves, soldiers and poets. The first act is a wild bacchanalian introduction to Timon’s world of reckless opulence; banquets of sushi, expensive jewelry, monetary gifts and self-portraits.
Balancing Timon’s character are Alcibiades (Ed Berkeley), a rigid military commander and Apermantus (David Sinaiko), a philosopher and cynic. Melrose, as Shakespeare intended, uses these three as mirrors of each other. Timon believes his generosity will buy true friendship, Alcibiades denies advantage for the soldiers’ life of meager means and glory and Apermantus is the wise sage who chides Timon and his sycophants.
It all goes south as Timon overextends himself and can’t pay off his debtors, who cruelly cast him aside as does his pseudo friends. Parallels to San Francisco’s current issues of gentrification, displacement of wealth and homelessness are evident. One need only walk outside the theater to see the world Timon of Athens presents.
The second act contains some of Shakespeare’s finest poetry, with beautiful dialogues between Timon and Apermantus and Timon and Flavius, his trusty steward (Courtney Walsh). Timon is reduced to a living in a tarp tent, full of wild anger at his former ‘friends’. Alcibiades who was banished by The Senate, returns to seek revenge against Athens, and all is in turmoil.
All the characters in Timon allow the ensemble opportunities to shine. Courtney Walsh, who was extraordinary in this season’s title role in Phedre, works her magic here again as Timon’s one true friend and servant. Unable to save him from himself, she stands by him till his untimely demise. David Sinaiko is a joy as Apermantus and Ed Berkeley is strong, bold and righteous as Alcibiades.
Melrose’s direction makes excellent use of the Exit Theater space and masterfully employs the considerable talents of costume designer Alina Bokovikova, lighting designer Heather Basarab, scenic designer Michael Locher, sound designer Cliff Caruthers and properties designer Stephanie Dittbern. Details like a Soul Train dance sequence (choreographed by Randee Paufve), a Senator performing her yoga poses, slow motion takes, and characters holding Hamilton playbills to show they’re effete status tickle this reviewer’s funny bone.
All these fine components support the star of this production, Brennan Pickman-Thoon. From the elegant suited philanthropist of the first act to the degraded, madman of the later scenes, Pickman-Thoon inhabits his character with a dedication that elevates his performance to lofty heights. It’s both a deeply introspective and athletic role and Brennan breathes life into this seldom seen character. Like Hamlet, Timon has the traits of a tortured soul and bares them to us with a vulnerability and rawness that is electrifying to behold. I had the opportunity to see Stephen Spinella’s two-time Tony-winning performance in Tony Kushner’s very Shakespearean-esque Angels in America. With Timon of Athens, Brennan Pickman-Thoon has his very own Prior Walter.
Timon of Athens is cynical, illuminating and contemporary. With its references to our high-tech world and financial inequality, the play puts a sharp focus on the collision course we’re currently experiencing. Cutting Ball, who always put a special tweak on all their productions, has created a must-see season finale.
Performances run through April 29, 2018 www.cuttingball.com 415.525.1205