CEDAR CITY — While some have referred to Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens as “problematic” or “unfinished,” the Utah Shakespeare Festival turns all those potential problems into beautiful solutions with a cast and creative team that deserves an overwhelming huzzah!
Directed by Lisa Peterson, this rendition of one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known works was staged in the Eileen and Allen Anes Studio Theatre on the campus of Southern Utah University. This smaller black box venue offered a level of intimacy that simply could not be achieved in a larger space — all without sacrificing the beauty and detail for which the Utah Shakespeare Festival is known.
The story opens on a picture of wealth and luxury as Timon of Athens (played by Elijah Alexander) is surrounded by a party of flatterers who are anxious to receive all the money, jewels, and prizes which Timon readily bestows upon his presumed friends. Timon’s generosity seems to know no bounds, and soon he has spent himself into debt; only then does he learn his friends were of the fair-weather variety. When none will come to his aid in his time of financial need, he tricks them all into coming to another feast, and then drives them out of his house amid shouts and curses before fleeing to a voluntary exile in a cave where he meets his ultimate demise.
Scenic designer Tanya Orellana and costume designer An-Lin Dauber have created a world in which one can witness the striking contrast between opulence and happiness on the one hand, and destitution and despair on the other. From the bold, regal fabrics and ostentatious baubles and plumes to the rich wood doors and elegant chandeliers, there can be no question as to Timon’s wealth as the play begins. Similarly, the stage’s transformation in the second act to reveal a dark cave, shows just how far this title character has fallen. The clever decision to leave the once shimmering chandeliers, now dashed on the ground, throughout the second act served as a particularly moving reminder of this tragic change.
Filling the title role of this production, Alexander commanded the stage with his charm and jovial spirit in the first act, and even more so with his devastation and reviling hatred in the second. His remarkable presence was matched by a cast of incredible talent, each taking their turn in the spotlight, while also moving in harmony to support the rest of the cast. And once again, opposites in personalities offered contrast and depth to the story being told. For example, Anatasha Blakely and Darin F. Earl II, playing the parts of the poet and the painter respectively, were overflowing with a delightful foppery each time they set foot on stage. Meanwhile, Nell Geisslinger held her own with her churlish portrayal of the philosopher Apemantus.
Likewise, Senators Lucius and Lucullus (played by Jeorge Bennett Watson and Jasmine Bracey, respectively) demanded a combination of respect and admiration for their portrayals of their roles. And no one else’s voice filled the space quite like Alcibiades (played by James Ryan) when he spoke. The only challenge to these eloquently delivered lines fell with Flavius, the steward to Timon (played by Sheila Tousey). Although Flavius is certainly to be admired for her loyalty, the bulk of Tousey’s sentiments were delivered without the same passion and fervor shown by the rest of the cast. What should have been seen as strength in this character, came across as weakness in some cases, a problem that could be resolved by adding more inflection to the voice while delivering these poignant lines.
Although there was certainly not enough music in this production to consider it once of Shakespeare’s musical plays, the addition of some lyrical elements, sung by Geisslinger, was a wonderful treat.
Undoubtedly, much of this production of Timon of Athens will come as a surprise to those who have only casually experienced the Bard’s work up to this point. Thankfully, Utah Shakespeare Festival is bringing Timon of Athens out of obscurity in the best way possible — and making it one of the season’s “don’t miss” plays.