Timon of Athens

by Adam Brinklow

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday April 10, 2018

Brennan Pickman-Thoon (center) with Radhika Rao (left) and María Ascensión Leigh. Photo by Rob Melrose.
Brennan Pickman-Thoon (center) with Radhika Rao (left) and María Ascensión Leigh. Photo by Rob Melrose.  

Cutting Ball closes its season with one of Shakespeare's least popular, least commented on, least widely performed works, "Timon of Athens."

You can probably shape a pretty good show from the material of "Timon" and, indeed, director Rob Melrose actually does it here. But why bother when we have dozens of other, better plays to choose from?

In this case, Melrose and company believe they see a certain synchronicity between "Timon" and modern day San Francisco, both the high-wheeling Silicon Valley side of things and the down and out living of Cutting Ball's own neighborhood, the Tenderloin.

This late-career Shakespearean tragedy concerns Timon, an ideal and idealistic tycoon who throws grandiose parties for his friends, patronizes the arts, and pays off other people's debts. (For the record, the character's name is apparently pronounced "tie-mon.")

Fresh-faced Brennan Pickman-Thoon takes the lead and couldn't seem more natural if his livelihood actually did hang in the balance. The principle joys of Melrose's "Timon" lie in the smooth and confident way that Pickman-Thoon unveils the embroidered dialogue and his easygoing poise and comfort onstage. If ever a guy was born for a spotlight, this is him.

Indeed, his charisma even verges on being a problem, since it makes Timon's good times seem a little too good. Rather than shaking our heads at his indiscretion, audiences might want Timon's high-rolling rockstar lifestyle to keep going, if only because he seems like such a plausibly sympathetic guy.

Brennan Pickman-Thoon (center) with, from left, Adam Niemann, John Steele, Jr., and Douglas Nolan. Photo by Rob Melrose.
Brennan Pickman-Thoon (center) with, from left, Adam Niemann, John Steele, Jr., and Douglas Nolan. Photo by Rob Melrose.  

Naturally, it's not long before we find out that Timon is actually flat broke and doesn't know it. When his debts catch up to him his friends stop returning his calls, and sooner rather than later he's out on the curb.

This is where the stories of Athens and San Francisco are meant to intersect, with Melrose imagining Timon as a stand-in for the local startup set, young and ambitious men who can be the toast of the town one week and has-beens the next.

Meanwhile, Timon's life as a misanthropic hermit in the second act is meant to echo the hard living of San Francisco's homeless.

It's a cute idea, but in practice this vibe doesn't really add all that much to the play. Does anyone find startup bros particularly sympathetic and relatable? The effect is mostly window dressing to create a contemporary setting that admittedly doesn't hurt the affair much but doesn't particularly enhance it either.

And "Timon" still comes laden with all of the flaws of its finicky and possibly unfinished script. A critical subplot involving an exiled military officer (the incredibly square-jawed Ed Berkeley from Custom Made Theatre's "Love & Warcraft") brews itself from almost nothing and feels very much like a piece of a completely separate play, which in all likelihood it probably once was.

Meanwhile, the second half descends into a redundant allegorical skit in which Timon tells off his old associates one at a time, which is sort of like watching a home run derby: entertaining at first, but limited by the fact that no variation is possible.

When a pair of politicians (Radhika Rao and Douglas Nolan, the latter affecting a southern-friend, Lindsay Graham-like vibe that's subtly hilarious) show up to plead for Timon's help at the end it's never clear why they're asking. And the play eventually hangs Timon out to dry between scenes.

So yeah, it's just never been a particularly strong play, and the 21st century paintjob only goes so far.

Still, as long as Cutting Ball is intent on staging "Timon" instead of anything else, there are plenty of diamonds in this rough. The verse is simply gorgeous for one thing, particularly Timon's feverish soliloquy about the perils of gold, which Pickman-Thoon delivers with haunting detachment.

There's also the joys of Cutting Ball man for all seasons David Sinaiko as the quick-witted, antisocial philosopher Apemantus, dressed like a tramp from "Waiting For Godot," complete with carrots in his pockets and proud as a shabby peacock.

And somewhere in the lines and glossy black surfaces of Michael Locher's unforgivingly contemporary set there's the shadow of a more fully formed story about social decay and the heat given off by new money burning itself away.

This one isn't going to save "Timon of Athens" from itself. But even so, you should take up the opportunity to catch this one before its riches run out too.

"Timon of Athens" plays through April 29 at the EXIT on Taylor Theatre, 277 Taylor Street in San Francisco. For tickets and information, call 415-292-4700 or go to CuttingBall.com.