What happens when you combine Shakespearean dialogue, ancient Roman characters and 20th-century fashion, and then set it all to a thoroughly modern techno beat? You get the production of “Timon of Athens” that is currently gracing the stage at Hatlen Theatre courtesy of Theatre Artists Group and Theatre UCSB, in association with the Lit Moon World Shakespeare Festival. Directed by renowned director Risa Brainin and starring some of UCSB’s very own drama students and professors, this production of one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known works is nothing if not innovative.
The play centers around the wealthy, worldly and warm-hearted Timon – played to perfection by Irwin Appel – whose generosity leads him to bankruptcy, forcing him to eventually confront the fact that his altruism is all too rare in the real world. Timon’s fall from social and economic dominance is charted by an amusing cast of characters ranging from Timon’s fellow society folks to the poet and painter who rely on his patronage to the cynical philosopher who serves as Timon’s foil throughout the play.
The story, with its examinations of wealth, power and the peculiar patterns of behavior that characterize the social elite, is definitely a timeless one – and Brainin takes full advantage of this in her staging of “Timon.” With costumes that range from 1920s and 1930s formalwear to glam-rock mesh tops and boho-chic beatnik duds, and spare sets enhanced by the liberal use of a fog machine and flashing, colored lights, the film is a visual trip through time. After the play, I heard one woman say that she felt the costumes and effects helped make an obscure story easier for those unfamiliar with the play to understand, but honestly, I felt they were just plain distracting as they took away from the cohesiveness of the plot by being so visually disparate. It almost looked as though the wardrobe people had put together a collection of beautiful – but mismatched – clothes pulled at random from the drama department’s closet. Furthermore, the director threw in plenty of little asides and jokes – ranging from a weed-smoking reference to enough blatant homosexual references to please even the most discerning of “Will & Grace” fans – and although these jokes were often at least mildly funny, they also seemed to smack of a director trying just a little too hard to make a classical work accessible for a contemporary audience.
Brainin took plenty of risks in the staging of this particular play, and not all of them paid off, but one thing she absolutely excelled at was the casting. From the main characters to the slightly smaller parts, it is clear that each actor is a perfect fit for their role. Appel, a professor in the Dramatic Art Dept. and the director of the B.F.A. Actor Training Program here at UCSB, is magnetic as the wealthy philanthropist whose big heart brings him nothing but bankruptcy. As the character goes from over-the-top prosperity and magnanimity to equally over-the-top poverty and misanthropy, Appel manages to keep his performance grounded and human – no small task considering how easily the play’s dialogue and staging could have created a caricature out of his character. Richard Klautsch, a principal actor with the Idaho Shakespeare Festival, also succeeds in crafting a mesmerizing and powerful performance as the philosopher and cynic Apemantus. And, as the Athenian Captain Alcibiades, UCSB senior Zach Appelman shines with the perfect combination of sexy soldier strength and real emotion – and let’s be honest here, he’s definitely easy on the eyes as well, and that doesn’t hurt.
Ultimately, “Timon of Athens” is a trip – a literal trip through time, a philosophical trip through the rise and fall of a wealthy man and what this trajectory reveals about society and a figurative trip through a crazy world of smoke machines, flashing lights, contemporary humor, techno beats and quite a few other innovations that could either have had Shakespeare rolling in his grave or rolling in the aisles laughing. This is definitely not an easy play to digest and the liberties Brainin takes with its staging don’t always help to make it easier. However, it is worth checking out, if only for its incredible acting and its imaginative take on a classic – but rarely performed – work that you seldom get the chance to see on stage.
“Timon of Athens” plays on Oct. 21 at 8 p.m. and Oct. 22 at 2 p.m. in Hatlen Theatre. For more information, call (805) 893-3535