Thursday, February 24, 2011

Timon of Athens and Tessa Gratton

Last night, I drove up to New York to meet Tessa Gratton to go see a production of Shakespeare's Timon of Athens at the Public Theatre in the East Village. Tessa is even more beautiful in person than in her photos, and that's saying something. She's also every bit as smart and funny as I expected, and then some. Don't you just love it when you meet online friends in real life and they turn out to be awesome? I know I do (and I also know that's usually the case, at least when it comes to online writer friends).

The play starred Richard Thomas (who will forever be John Boy Walton to me) as Timon (rhymes with Simon, and is not - as I had thought - pronounced like the name of the meerkat in The Lion King), a man who starts the play as a spendthrift, essentially showering money and possessions on his so-called friends, only to find himself in dire straights - and with false friends who do not care to assist him. He ends the play as a misanthrope, living alone and impoverished in a cave and completely disillusioned in mankind, until his servant, Flavius, arrives and wants to serve him even though Flavius believes Timon cannot pay him. Timon has, however, unearthed a cache of gold, which is given to Flavius as a reward for being a single good man (echoes of the story of Lot, perhaps?) while Athens is left to fall to an encroaching army. Timon kills himself (offstage).

The play itself was . . . odd. Really and truly. No wonder the play is only seldom performed. According to proponents of linguistics using recently developed computer programs that analyze usage and punctuation, it appears that as much as 40% of the play may have been written by Thomas Middleton, in a collaboration with Shakespeare. The play first appeared in print in the First Folio, produced after Shakespeare's death. It's possible that only an incomplete script existed, or that it was an experimental sort of play. It's also possible that the play as performed during Shakespeare's life was better fleshed out than what was reduced to the page. It's one of the many Shakespeare-related mysteries that we simply have to accept and move on.

The setting for the play - the Ansbacher Theater at the Public - was marvelous, however. Tess and I were in the fifth row, stage right - essentially in extremely plush stadium seating looking down on the floor, where the play was staged with minimal scenery and props. The two side-stage sections were a mere eight rows deep, and the center stage section, while considerably wider, was only six rows deep, which ensures that no-one is particularly far from the stage at any point in time.

While neither Tessa nor I knew this play going in, we know our Shakespeare well enough to know filthy puns when we hear them, which meant that we were two of, say, four people laughing aloud at the start of the play. I'm sure the people around us wondered what we were on about as we laughed at this dialogue between the Poet and the Painter:

Poet
Upon the heels of my presentment, sir.
Let's see your piece.

Painter
'Tis a good piece.

Poet
So 'tis: this comes off well and excellent.

Painter
Indifferent.

Poet
Admirable: how this grace
Speaks his own standing! what a mental power
This eye shoots forth! how big imagination
Moves in this lip! to the dumbness of the gesture
One might interpret.
On the one hand, they were talking about a painting; on the other, they were talking about penises and ejaculation. (Those of us who knew about the other hand were decidedly in the minority.)

All things considered, it's not a play I liked well enough to seek out again, not that I'd avoid it, necessarily. The characters aren't developed quite well enough, in my opinion, to find one to really like, or at least to feel sorry for.

Oh. And if you're wondering why I used my "Inconceivable!" icon for this post, it's because we saw Wallace Shawn (aka "Vizzini") in the lobby before the play. We assume he went up to the third floor to see a play called Compulsion, since he didn't appear to be in the audience with us.

P.S. You are not allowed to take photos inside The Public Theatre, as I discovered immediately after taking the photo of Tess and me. I apologized, of course, but didn't delete it.

P.P.S. The sandwiches and red wine (rioja) in the lobby were delectable. I'm just saying.


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