On a beautiful Spring evening, after a dinner date with one of my best ladymates, I entered a small storefront theater space to see a Shakespeare play that I had never heard of. Timon of Athens, produced at the Mercury Theater on Charles Street, was written by Billy Shakes and Thomas Middleton. Um, you didn’t think Shakespeare wrote all his own plays did you? Anyway, Timon of Athens is a play about the dangers of excess. The rich Athenian Timon (Jacob Budenz) is a popular playboy who likes to shower his colleagues; Senator Horensius (Jonathan Jacobs); Lord Lucius (Scott Burke); Lord Lucullus (Dave Iden) and military officer Alcibiades (Sara Jacklin) with lavish gifts, women, parties and feasts. A rich, powerful dude without a clue giving things to private donors, politicians and the military to keep them in his favor? Sound familiar? Well, the bill collectors start knocking on Timon’s door. All his friends scatter (new phone, who dis?) and he retreats to a cave in the woods to escape the world. And then finds something interesting. Then he loses his mind? And a political revolution occurs? And then he dies in the cave? I’m confused. You’ll see what I mean when you see the show.
The show’s curtain speech was a little rough and we didn’t find out until after the first half that there was an intermission, but I enjoyed watching the pre-show of Timon putting on his face in the balcony of the space. Even with the rough start, I can say wholeheartedly that the supporting cast in this play was phenomenal. Nina Kearin as the Poet showed a clear understanding of the language. She floated into the space with her poetic musings and embodied her character. Apemantus (Frank Mancino) was every bit the brooding, contrarian who tried to warn Timon of his future. Frank Mancino was grounded and his mature presence made his words echo throughout the play. Flavius (Caroline Preziosi) was the ever vigilant servant to the blinged out Timon. Caroline stole the scene whenever she was on stage. I believed her Flavius. She showed emotional depth with the language and had an almost ethereal nature. Jacob Zabawa played various characters in the production and each of them were distinct and awesome. He was a chameleon and used the full range of his body to transform into a flamboyant painter, a grizzled senator, or a person of leisure.
The titular character of Timon (Jacob Budenz) can best be described as a messy queen. And I was there for it! Jacob Budenz looked and moved like a spoiled, rich kid. His limbs adorned in gold sequins and the light quality of his voice fit perfectly with an out of touch, narcissist partier. Jacob looked the part, but he lacked the same level of presence as the supporting cast. Maybe it was how the character was written. Timon seemed two dimensional. The vapid emotion, which worked in the first act to display a bratty child, didn’t resonate in the second act when his life was basically over. There wasn’t any weight or motivation behind the emotion, be it anger or sadness. Not sure if this was a character choice, but I wanted to pull a little more out of the actor. I didn’t get the feeling that Jacob Budenz was as connected to the language and he lacked directness that a lead character should possess on stage.
The technical aspects of the production helped make everything gel together. Set designer Douglas Johnson kept it simple and straightforward with a raised platform stage that served many purposes. A table for a feast, painted screen with a cityscape, curtains, and ivy rounded out the space. Music and sound designer Scott Burke created musical interludes which worked well, although sometimes they were a touch too disconnected. The sounds in the woods were subtle, yet assertive and I was jamming out during the party scene. The lighting showcased the craziness in Athens thanks to lighting designer Kevin Blackistone. Kevin used cool tones, interesting forestry gobos, and subtle changes in color during emotional scenes. I especially enjoyed the uplit balcony. Nice touch. One lighting issue: the lighting during scene changes (and there were a lot of them) was a soft blue color, but it was too bright and at times was also used during scenes. Costume designer and properties Mimi Nowaskey had fun with this play and it showed. I loved Timon’s gold attire! Yaass Queen! That good sequin crusted tunic was everything! His attire was glorious and opulent and the golden touches in every costume piece were appreciated. The rest of the cast costumes were real, and tongue in cheek, and easily allowed the actors to play multiple character without it getting distracting. Attendants in black attire was an effective choice. The Mercury theater is a small tight, black box space and Director Martin Kasey did an ample job of managing to the limitations of the space, pulling out emotion from the cast, and staging it in an interesting and creative way. The thoughtful direction had energy and movement and it made this experimental piece even more interesting. My only beef was that the ending of the play felt very disconnected from the rest of the performance. Was that on purpose? IDK.
I like Shakespeare. I like reading it, performing it and watching it. But this play didn’t feel like Shakespeare. It felt rushed and incomplete. Which was actually kinda cool. It was weird, layered, experimental and perfect for the Baltimore art scene. It felt like Bill and Thom sat in a room, got high af, and wrote a play. The play had odd depth in parts and shallowness in others. The language was clever and I saw a few classic Shakespearean themes just below the surface. I dug it. What I didn’t get was the character of Timon. I wanted to party with him, but I was waiting for the character to shut up and stay in the cave. I did not feel bad for him and maybe that was the point. He never reformed from his narcissistic ways. This play was cautionary tale in opulence without substance. We live in a world of moral contradictions of money, power and fame. Timon of Athens tries to explore those contradictions as well as throw in a bit of politics along the way. Basically the party can’t last forever. Debt gets us all honey.
Should I stay or should I go? Go see this play and experience something different than Will’s usual stuff. This ain’t no Hamlet. But if you’re basic, there are multiple offerings of this perennial favorite playing on Baltimore stages this year. Timon of Athens is on its own little literary island. The script, although somewhat uneven at times, deserves its time in the limelight as an experimental work. Mercury Theater continues to showcase different plays with their own unique spin and Timon of Athens is no exception. Shakespeare heads will appreciate the language, but will get a chance to see something in the cannon they may not be familiar with. Regular civilians will enjoy the raunchiness, humor and anti-hero Timon. Mercury Theater’s Timon of Athens is a fun to watch, well executed show that’s a little rough around the edges. That just makes it uniquely Bawlmer. Bring cash (pay what you can), use the bathroom before the show starts and sit in front to get full view of this opulent, crazy, emotional, Shakespeare-lite play. (Z)
Now through May 5th. Running Time: 2 hours and 30 mins with a one 20 minute intermission.