ANOUSHKA MALLIK/SAGAMORE STAFF
They say to keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Unfortunately for William Shakespeare’s tragic hero Timon, you actually have to have friends to keep them close or you will find yourself encircled by wolves.
The Drama Society’s production of “Timon of Athens” integrated an old story of existential dread and financial ruin with a modern setting and performance style to produce a rich, engaging and topical presentation of an often forgotten play in Shakespeare’s language-defining body of work.
Timon (senior Eve Jones) is a wealthy Athenian, having inherited considerable riches from her known philanthropic family. Not falling too far from the tree, Timon surrounds herself with friends such as Ventidius (senior Jack Reisman), Sempronia (senior Emelia Guach) as well as the unnamed Poet (senior Stanley Peng), Jeweler (junior Sammy Yee) and Painter (junior Grace Thompson), whom she showers in gifts and foots the bill for various debts they incurred.
However, Timon eventually finds herself buried in debt from her careless generosity, yet with her creditors at the door she finds none of her “friends” will offer her the same assistance she once gave them. Despondent, Timon rejects society and retreats to the woods outside the walls of Athens. Despite various pleas from her steward Flavia (Senior Phoebe Kallaher) and her former dependents, Timon dies, the cause unexplained though suicide is implied, leaving only a tragic epitaph to mark her grave.
The show is one of Shakespeare’s least-known plays. It focuses on the existential dread of a life filled with money but devoid of companionship. Timon essentially buys a group of superficial friends only interested in her reckless gift-giving, but false relationships and economic reality eventually breach the wall of façade that she had financed.
“Timon of Athens” is not a play that Director Mary Mastandrea would have used to teach her Drama II students about the works of William Shakespeare.
“I’ve always said an example of a play we’d never do is Timon of Athens,” Mastandrea said. “In my Drama II classes we do a shortened version of a Shakespeare play, and that’s always the example of ‘choose any show you want to do… except Timon of Athens.’”
Because of the somewhat ambiguous plot and complicated themes and morals, this was a bold pick for the cast, crew and director, especially since amid a pandemic, stages are being shut down rather than set.
To compensate, the play was performed entirely over a Zoom Webinar, with each cast member acting from their own home with a green screen for setting while managing their own props and costumes. The various scene changes were coordinated by the show’s tech team.
Despite the hurdles the choice presented, the show achieved a remarkable feat by movingly portraying the complex existence and fall of a misguided socialite while moving the premise into a modern world complete with wildfires, a global pandemic and the requisite face shields and masks.
The transitions through the scenes were seamless, incorporating both implied video calls between characters and in-person interactions, using familiar sounds such as buzzes and ringtones to delineate between them. It was truly remarkable that the show was performed live with each actor a panelist on a Zoom webinar, complete with music, sound and video editing as well as with complex prop and costume transitions.
The acting certainly did not suffer due to the challenges. The addition of a French accent for Flavia really brought her character to life, making her dismissals seem more pretentious and her concerns more pointed when used in chorus with American English. Alcibiades hit the seriousness of her role right on the nose, bringing real emotion to the tragedy of Timon. The production used creative camera angle techniques and manipulated their spaces to truly offer what felt like an in-person production despite the virtual format. Line delivery was on point, shifting effectively in tone from the light and artificially peppy banquets Timon throws to serious and concerned once she rejects organized society and begins living on roots in the woods.
A subplot about the death sentence for a doctor that performed an abortion leveled by the Athenian Senate, conveniently headed by Ventidius and Sempronia, sets up soldier-rebel Alcibiades (senior Din Klein) and her brigade as protestors of the decision. While topical, the diversion blurs the overall focus of the play, pulling the viewer away from Timon just as her full-on mental deterioration begins to set in. It is unclear if Timon even cares about the decision, and while Alcibiades is briefly mentioned before the trial scene, her status as a friend to Timon is not fully developed despite her serving a crucial role among remaining characters reflecting on Timon’s death in the final moments of the show.
Despite some confusion, the overall production was a momentous triumph. The ability to maintain the audience’s immersion even in the face of a public health situation that tears down many of the traditions of theater is a major feat and should not be taken lightly. One can only imagine what hurdles the tech crew had to vault to create such a seamless experience.
Top-notch costumes and sound design, coupled with a clear commitment to dramatic excellence even in the face of impossible odds, “Timon of Athens,” far from being a forgotten work of Shakespeare, becomes a trailblazer for the performing arts in a world we all seldom understand.