August 13, 2008

In a Shakespearean Horror Show, a Parable About Extravagance

By Matt Wolf

Since when did lesser-known Shakespeare become a regular revelation? Let's just say at the very least over the several years that the director Lucy Bailey has been working at Shakespeare's Globe. Two summers ago, Bailey made her debut at the Bankside venue with a production of "Titus Andronicus" that saw spectators keeling over, mortified by the murderous fury of the Bard's bleakest, blackest text. Now, Bailey has returned to the Globe in comparably incisive form, this time with "Timon of Athens," a little-known play about beneficence betrayed and the descent into the abyss that ensues. No one gets dismembered, you may be happy to know, but under Bailey's keen stewardship, the play still hurts. You have until Oct. 3 to mark its full measure for yourself.

There's been a move at the Globe of late to expand the parameters of the space, and Bailey pushes this idea to its furthest reach yet. As the audience takes its seats - or, in the case of the "groundlings" in the al fresco courtyard, prepares to stand - several cast members can be seen gnawing their way above the mesh enfolding an arena that is generally open to the elements. As these spidery figures scuttle away above, below we find general exuberance, feasting, and a populace punchdrunk on the same finery borne out in the designer William Dudley's resplendent costumes. Times are good, not least when you've got Simon Paisley Day's white- clad Timon smiling at the very largesse that he brings with him. So what if Bo Poraj's sneering Apemantus shadows Timon throughout, tempering the extravagance that will do Timon in? (Poraj is the lone performer who, at this point in the run, has the attitude down but not quite the vocal attack needed for so diffuse a space.) It's in the nature of this wounding parable of a play that Timon discovers all that and more for himself, emerging as a bestial, near- naked figure who nearly wallows in life's filth.

Bailey's "Titus" was very directly a horror show, as might be expected from a play about a soldier who, we are told, has somehow lost 21 sons along the way. The death count in "Timon" may not be so extreme, but the play - written nearly contemporaneously with "King Lear" - still impresses as a horror show all its own about a man awakened to the awful pointlessness of doing good. Chastened by his own charitable impulses, Timon withdraws into the woods (a retreat given comic reverberations in "A Midsummer Night's Dream"), attended by a devoted steward in Flavius (a touching Patrick Godfrey), who is this play's equivalent to Lear's Fool.

Will Timon make peace with the society that has spurned him? It's giving little away to report that, at the preview performance attended, nature's own drizzle was being matched by talk of "droplets" from a stage that charts the Athenian general Alcibiades' own descent into a fury fueled by life's injustice. "I am worse than mad," says Alcibiades, the one true friend of a Timon who, in Day's superb, all-stops-out performance, shifts from something like a Bill Gates of the Bardic era to a begrimed figure who is not above baring some notably dirty buttocks to make a point about humankind at its most debased.

As her "Titus" was, Bailey's "Timon" is also wonderfully playful, so as to forestall any sense that Shakespeare is lecturing us on the topic of man's misdeeds. (Make that Shakespeare and Middleton, given an insistent program essay asserting that a full third of this play was written by the very Elizabethan contemporary, Thomas Middleton, to whom the National's current, and rather colorless, revival of "The Revenger's Tragedy" is credited.) Timon's various flatterers cut a lively crew; leading the way are Michael Jibson and Michael Matus as, respectively, the painter and poet who are the first to play sycophant when it suits them only to turn with the changing fortunes of a man who must re-evaluate everything he has ever thought about the tenets of friendship.

Those who make it to "Timon," meanwhile, will experience first- hand an intermission that, unusually in my experience, begins with a stage full of performers bellowing at spectators to get out. Audience abuse? Far from it. Indeed, I can't remember the last time I emerged midway through a show so eager to race back in; amidst the late-summer doldrums, "Timon" constitutes the season's most bracing tonic.

That accolade might conceivably have gone to "They're Playing Our Song," the 1979 Broadway musical that has been revived at the Menier Chocolate Factory in south London, running through Sept. 28. But here's the rub: What I recall being charming enough as performed by a cast of Broadway pros at home with the psychobabble in which the show traffics has curdled over the decades into a supposed musical comedy at which I barely raised a smile.

It doesn't help proceedings that Fiona Laird's production seems not to know whether to take the material at face value or to send it up. As a result, we get an occasional stage full of bubbles and some seriously awful wigs in keeping with the garish decor of a seriously self-deprecating heroine, Sonia Walsk (Connie Fisher), who, we're told, lives "in poverty" on West 18th Street. (Those were the days, given an area now virtually unaffordable for such striving artists.) On the other hand, you have to invest something in the vicissitudes of the song writer Sonia's rocky emotional road with the composer Vernon Gersch (Alistair McGowan) to care whether the couple will make beautiful music both in and out of the bedroom. (The musical was reportedly inspired by the affections between its own composer, Marvin Hamlisch, and lyricist, Carole Bayer Sager.)

Though written by Neil Simon, "They're Playing Our Song" belongs to the era of Woody Allen's "Annie Hall" and to a kind of New York Jewish neurosis that you certainly don't learn in the reality-TV corridors that brought Fisher to stardom, when she was chosen two seasons ago to play Maria (and very well, too) in the ongoing West End revival of "The Sound of Music." Sonia, I'm afraid, marks too pronounced a stretch, not least in the demands posed by an accent that has Fisher saying things like "bee-yoo-tee-ful" and "don'tcha"; all that's missing is some gum chewing.

McGowan, a popular TV impressionist, is to be applauded for his continued interest in theater work that will see him playing The Duke next year in a touring production of "Measure For Measure," directed by the actor Jamie Glover. Here, he is too sour and emotionally cramped a presence to play this genial shlub of a Juilliard graduate who takes to writing songs on Sonia's spinal column. As for a chorus whose men seem stuck in a constant John Travolta groove, they embody an evening so busy attaching itself to the templates of a now-vanished era that it has entirely forgotten how to be what "They're Playing Our Song" once was and is no longer - namely, sweet.

Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.

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