Timon of Athens
Timon of Athens
In a move of remarkable hubris, Seth Duerr, founder and artistic director of the York Shakespeare Company, is directing and playing the leads in four of the Bard's plays, which the company is performing in repertory for one month. I caught one of them, Timon of Athens -- and, judging by this production, Duerr may have actually pulled this stunt off.

Timon of Athens is one of those "forgotten" Shakespeare plays that is rarely performed, and undeservedly so. It concerns Timon, a noble of Athens, whose generosity and sociability makes him beloved by many; however, when he finds himself in debt, his so-called friends turn their backs on him. Spurned, Timon loses all faith in humanity and flees to the wilds to live alone. Alas, his various servants, friends, and enemies all go there to find him. One friend, a good captain who has been unfairly banished from Athens, encounters Timon and is convinced by him to take revenge on the nobles of the city of their former residence. But, at the city gates, two men successfully dissuade the captain from shedding blood, and the play ends.

For a Shakespearean work, Timon is very straightforward. There is only one subplot (the captain's banishment), and the play's themes are all directly related to money and its corrupting influence. In fact, what's surprising is that the play doesn't take any of the turns you might expect. In the forest, Timon discovers a pile of gold coins while digging for food. He throws the gold willy-nilly to his many visitors, allowing himself ample opportunity to deliver bitter speeches to his guests; yet Timon never uses the money to make a triumphant return to Athens. In fact, the awkward ending of the play, which leaves Timon's fate in question, has led many scholars to the conclusion that this is an unfinished work.

Whether that's true or not, Timon of Athens is engaging, funny, and refreshing in its simplicity. The York Shakespeare Company has given it an equally refreshing interpretation but without all of the forced conceptualization that so frequently belabors modern stagings of the Bard's work. Duerr has assembled a fine crew of very talented and (mostly) very young actors. The best of the group are the three who anchor the play: Matt Steinberg, wickedly funny and surprisingly sympathetic as Timon's greatest critic, the acid-tongued philosopher Apemantus; Mick Lauer, impressive as the dignified and quietly passionate Athenian captain Alcibiades; and as Timon, Duerr himself, who possesses the kind of voice, presence, and emotional understanding of his material that brings out the best in every actor and makes Shakespeare's words a treat to listen to. The play is performed at the lovely West Park Church -- which, with its ample space, wooden décor, and balcony running along the sides of the space, provides built-in scenic design.

Seth Duerr in Henry V
Seth Duerr in Henry V
The play itself remains problematic, especially in its second half: Aside from a moving scene between Timon and Apemantus, the title character is left in an emotionally and physically static state. The most fascinating part of his journey takes place over the course of the first few acts, as he faces the realization that the communion of warmth and friendship he shared with his fellows was a money-made illusion. Timon's heartbreak makes his transition from philanthropist to misanthrope believable; it's an important lesson, both for him and the audience, that money and friendship are not good bedfellows.

The York Shakespeare Company will be performing two more plays, Henry V (Thursday and Sunday), before its summer season ends. If Timon is any indication, it would be well worth your while to check out this talented troupe as they tackle those better known works.