Wednesday 11 July 2018

Truth, yes, but no chance of reconciliation in Timon 
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights : A few decades back Vancouver's Howe Street was infamous for its penny mining stock instant millionaires. Along with a hefty cohort of swindlers at play, too. Many of them ultimately found their beds at B.C. Pen far less snuggly than their long-lost cribs at the Four Seasons. Tales of endless riotous evenings at the Cave and Isy's and the Georgia during the good times were duly reported by Jack Wasserman. All of this and more makes Timon of Athens an excellent script choice for Vancouver's Bard on the Beach Shakespeare festival.

Whether parable or morality play or outright tragedy, Timon causes us to reflect on what true friendship looks like when the party's over. Timon is a classic "high flyer". He loves Gatsby-esque parties with lavish tables, wines worth their talent, and hob-nobbing with local artists and poets who see themselves as up-&-comers. They ask for loans, Timon digs deep. Expensive baubles he truckles on others. In truth, of course, they're but sycophants and lickspittles and spongers who when Timon's luck and money go Poof! they do, too.

Isidore (Adele Noronha) and Timon (Colleen Wheeler) yuk and suk it up gaily during Timon's heady days as a mover & shaker on the big city scene. 
Photo credit : Tim Matheson

How it's all put together : From the get-go, Director Meg Roe gives Billy Bard's Jacobean ear a really hard twist by casting the chief 10 roles all as women. And whether male or female, most in Vancouver know today's maths by heart : in the average household folks owe $1.70 in debt servicing for every $1 of disposable income they have. Worse still, the cost of housing alone now eats up over 80% of after-tax earnings here -- no question we live atop an inverted pyramid financially. 

When her tipsy pyramid crashes, Timon (Colleen Wheeler) beseeches her friends to bail her out with generosity equal to what she's effused on them over the years. They demur, defer, and depart right smartly. So she throws one last party for them. A feast of hot water in bowls on charger plates under silver domes. After a splashdown table-smash of epic proportion, she then hies herself off to the wilderness to become a hermit for the rest of her days. Even refuses to return triumphant to the Big Smoke despite discovering gold -- by the handful -- while digging for roots to eat.

Timon's assistants Flaminius (Ming Hudson) and Flavius (Moya O'Connell) share a final bit of Instagram mirth just before their mistress's house is rent asunder, literally, by Timon who now rages at her former, fickle fair-weather friends. 
Photo credit : Tim Matheson

What the show brings to the stage : There are four elements in a typical Shakespeare drama that resurface constantly : foreshadowing; hyperbole; shameless scheming; wrath that is rung down clamourously. 

In Timon, that last aspect is heightened once her friends scorn her collectively and offer up but a few hundred quid to soften her bankruptcy. Director Roe puts it thus : "It is difficult to pin down its themes. Working on it, I've been wondering about redemption, greed, agency, capitalism, friendship, altruism, generosity, societal obligation, nihilism, money...about the rotten systems at work in Timon's world. I think of Timon as a parable, but I'll leave you to fill in the moral at the end. In my opinion that is the most difficult part."

Clutching her last grasp of filthy lucre dug out of a wilderness cave, Timon (Colleen Wheeler) lets the world know exactly what she thinks of about honesty, fidelity and friendship when money comes into the picture.
Photo credit : Tim Matheson

Production values that enhance the script :  In the 50's the staging conceived for this performance would be called avant garde. Experimental. Unorthodox. All this it surely is on many levels. Starting with the all-women principals. Who are outfitted in contemporary yacht club lounge get-ups. Acting on Drew Facey's functional, elegant warehouse-loft set that morphs, violently, into a dirt-filled cave. These scenes join an electro-rapture of cacophony in the final anarchistic moments while lights crackle ominously atop simulated gunshots.

Add to all that, this : in its original the script is five acts in eleven scenes. Almost precisely the length of an uncut Macbeth. This troupe's Timon is done in but one continuous act, its scenes linked intimately, all executed in but 90 minutes -vs- the 150-minute run-time across the Bard campus portico for Macbeth. Original? Twenty-eight named characters plus ensemble, just twelve actors here (in 15 truncated roles).

Star production performance is without doubt the Facey set of square'd patchwork floorboards and support joists in Timon's home that Ms. Wheeler systematically rips up and throws aside in piles ringside. This wild scenario creates the cave that ultimately becomes Timon's chosen sarcophagus. [I was exhausted watching her huck all this weighty lumber to-&-fro, no question, while she ranted, raved and sobbed vociferously throughout.]

Acting pin-spots : No question Colleen Wheeler executes a profound and compelling and thunderously well-wrought Timon. Not unlike Lear, this is another of Shakespeare's seemingly bi-polar tragic characters who don't "fall" so much as "switch" from a decent, normal, copascetic adult into a wrathful, vengeful monster-god. Her soliloquies in the final chapter of the cave scenes could, however, have been sliced up a bit further -- there's a drag factor at play. Doing so would result in little loss to the script's focus on the horrible hypocrisies that infect people when the love of money transcends almost all other drivers and values in their lives.

As Timon's ever-loyal servant Flavius, Moya O'Connell was to this eye flawless : crisp efficiency, empathy run riot, loyalty-from-love her driving ethos. 

How not to like Apemantus (Marci T. House) who from Moment 1 questions Timon's Big City modus operandi : "What purpose these feasts, pomps and vain glories?" She calls out the Rich Housewives syndrome that Timon surrounds herself with as phony and cruel and exploitive. Curious how many critics call her role cynical when in fact it is these grasping charlatans who are the true cynics in the piece.

Who gonna like : In this adaptation of the Bard by Director Roe, cast and crew, perhaps the above question is better framed this way. If you are a Shakespeare traditionalist. If you want far more original Bard than adaptation. If wholesale gender-switches don't, as a rule, appeal to you. Well then this will not be your preferred outing to Bard in 2018.

If, on the other hand, you think you might be up for a clenching -- nay, accosting -- theatre experience, this is your Summer '18 toke for sure. It is excitement writ large in originality and chutzpah and braveness that will linger in memory for years to come. 

And all the layers of leitmotif themes Meg Roe itemizes above jump out not just convincingly but hauntingly. "Are we done in? What of this House?" Flaminius demands of Flavius at show's end. Who can possibly predict in a world such as we find ourselves. 

Particulars : Produced by Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival, Artistic Director Christopher Gaze. At the Howard Family Stage, Vanier Park. Performances : 33 shows between now and the September 9th closer. Schedule & ticket information @ Run-time 90 minutes, no intermission. 

Production crew :  Director Meg Roe. Costume Designer Mara Gottler.  Set Designer Drew Facey.  Lighting Designer John Webber.  Sound Designer/Composer Alessandro Juliani. Head Voice & Text Coach Alison Matthews. Choreographer Amanda Testini. Fight Director Josh Reynolds.  Stage Manager Joanne P. B. Smith. Assistant Stage Manager Jennifer Stewart. Apprentice Stage Manager Zoe Bellis.  Directing Apprentice Cherissa Richards. 

Performers :  Patti Allan (Sempronius).  Sebastien Archibald (Help 2).  Kate Besworth (Painter).  Michelle Fisk (Lucius).  Marci T. House (Apemantus).  Ming Hudson (Flaminius).  Jennifer Lines (Poet).  Joel D. Montgrand (Help 1).  Adele Noronha (Isidore).  Moya O'Connell (Flavius).  Quelemia Sparrow (Ventidius).  Colleen Wheeler (Timon). 


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