Few realizations are as painful in life as the one that comes to a previously generous person, fallen on hard times and made suddenly and brutally aware that the quality of kindness among homo sapiens is neither reciprocal nor ubiquitous.
That's pretty much the trajectory of one Timon of Athens, the central character in one of William Shakespeare's more interesting but least produced plays, currently on stage at Chicago Shakespeare Theater in an intriguing production from director Barbara Gaines that stars the British actor Ian McDiarmid. In the play, written around 1607 and generally assumed to be only partly the work of Shakespeare (although it's hardly alone in that regard), the Athenian lord initially finds himself with a house full of merchants, artists and other feeders, all happy to flatter him, drink his wine and receive his patronage and philanthropy.
But then things go wrong in Greece — plus ca change — and Timon generally gets foreclosed upon. Or, as one of his former friends succinctly puts it: "He owes."
Forsaken by his arty friends in his hour of need — and his value system thus upended — Timon flies into a rage and ends up flailing around in the woods, railing against the selfishness of man. He's so irreversibly mad at the world, his own recovery is impossible. There are a few seemingly decent men around, including Sean Fortunato's carefully wrought Flavius, a practical fellow in a world that so demands. But "Timon" is surely Shakespeare's most cynical play.
Gaines' spring production makes judicious cuts in the text, clips along nicely and won't bore anybody. She sets the play in a contemporary milieu; the first image is of a Times Square-like video bank (from Mike Tutaj, whose videos are embedded in Kevin Depinet's set) promoting Timon Capital. The collectors, merchants and the like who show up at Timon's table (played by the well-studied likes of Kevin Gudahl, Timothy Edward Kane, William Dick and John Byrnes) have the smooth, sycophantic air of cultural entrepreneurs and non-profit leaders all rushing to the table of a Warren Buffett-like philanthropist.
Identities are, of course, generalized, but Gaines' Timon is clearly intended to be the kind of figure whose name adorns lobbies and theaters and who gets "honored" on a regular basis by the recipients of his or her largesse. For a minute, you think this might well turn out to be one of the gutsiest productions in Chicago theater history: a non-profit theater that relies on people like Timon suggesting that it (and its peers) would quickly and ruthlessly shun them if the well should run dry. Here, it seems, is a cautionary tale for the careless philanthropist and a production for every director of advancement to hate.
Throughout the first part of the show, I was put in mind of the trading room run by the famously generous Chicago investor and philanthropist Richard Driehaus, whose foundation keeps many Chicago non-profits in business and who, let us wish for him, will never have such a fate as Timon of Athens. If Driehaus ever "owes" (unlikely, I know), one would like to think some of those checks would start flowing the other way. But would they? And does that question keep Driehaus and his many generous Chicago peers awake at night? Therein should lie the rub, if we're really all going to look at ourselves in the mirror.
To Gaines' great credit, that gutsy theme is in play here. But it's never fully realized, partly because the imagery that surrounds Timon puts too much emphasis on his business dealings — in the world of classical theater, computer crawls and besuited traders throwing their arms in the air have now become overused cliches of the mercurial world — and not enough on the motivations behind his philanthropic actions and on the subsequent actions of those who receive them.
Timon's giving, and what it gives him back, feels like too much a sideline, when the play suggests it is at the very core of the man. That's why he gets so mad when he comes to see its absence in others. Moreover, the production does not take enough of a position of the core issue of the drama: Is Timon's initially optimistic worldview a personal weakness that flows from his own insecurity and need for flattery, or is he a great and decent man let down by the lousy world, or is he both? One keeps leaning into this overly jittery production, and into McDiarmid's quirky and undeniably arresting performance, looking for clues to those potent matters. But they don't fully coalesce into a clear world view upon which this production, full of rock music, sexy dancers and other such peripheral stuff, can hang.
That said, McDiarmid's enigmatic persona, familiar to fans of George Lucas' "Star Wars" movies, is not without its appeal — in a performance that reminds me of something by Austin Pendleton, McDiarmid reads no line as you would expect it to be read. His late-in-the-play madness, which has shades of King Lear (Timon's big brother in limited human judgment), feels authentic and earned, and there is something in the way this experienced and fully consumed actor translates this language into colloquial expression. But while you see a rich portrait of the consequence of the world on man who tried to share his success and his failures, you never understand enough of why and how the man ever thought that would be possible.
When: Through June 10
Where: Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave.
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes