Every year we are inundated with Shakespeare adaptations. DC is a city that loves Shakespeare. When companies choose to stage a modern adaptation of one of the Bard’s works, they often approach with a novel concept, in order to make it stand out against the multitudinous adaptations that came before.
Props to Off the Quill for choosing the rarely produced Timon of Athens (classified as one of Shakespeare’s “Problem Plays”) as the base for their production of Timon 2016. No props, however, for the hackneyed and platitudinous concept of setting it in DC, as a mirror up to our political system.
In this adaptation, Timon (Tamieka Chavis), is running to be her party’s presidential candidate. Through a series of galas, and generous donations in order to curry favor among the Senators of DC, she finds herself broke and unable to pay back the massive debt she has accrued. The earlier recipients of her generosity quickly snub her, showing their corruption and greed by not helping her in turn. Among the good, upstanding people she’s helped, Alcibiades (Boneza Hanchock) gets herself exiled when her lover kills a Washingtonian for railing against Timon in a bar.
Timon, after a few outbursts, eschews the political and social scene of DC and goes running into the woods outside DC. Now living under a bridge, she turns from a beloved politician into a homeless misanthrope. There she finds a cache of gold amidst the garbage, and uses it to fund Alcibiades’ assault on DC. Thus is the spiral of tragedy, all leading to the play’s gentle, somber denouement.
Produced by Off the Quill
With a Shakespearean adaptation, a production should take great caution. It is said that “cutting Shakespeare is like performing surgery”. In Timon 2016, cutting and swapping words is done with very little care to the poetry or the scansion. Due to the gender-swapping, honorifics and various other terms are simply replaced with their opposite-gender equivalents, which in turn messes with the carefully laid out flow of the lines. Often times, perfectly modern vernacular is thrown in without rhyme or reason, but it is done so seldom that it is jarring to the ears, due to the sudden shift in linguistic rules.
All plays make statements, and all choices on the stage, likewise, make smaller statements. Some are louder and clearer than others. Some are intended, and others are not. A tricky play like Timon 2016 is thus an exercise in managing which statements are seen and heard by the audience. Through a series of poorly thought out choices, Director Katie Wanschura ends up saying some rather unfortunate things.
To cast Timon as a black woman is most certainly something to be applauded. And I deeply appreciate the casting choice of Tamieka Chavis for the role. However, as Timon flees from DC to the Woods to live under a bridge in a pile of garbage cans and milk crates, Chavis now resembles one of the many homeless women who live in the city, rather than the Greek Timon who fled to a cave and lived off of roots. And as such, when approached by prostitutes, we now have a woman slut-shaming other women for their choice of profession, which only serves to add a difficult layer to an already difficult play.
Concerning Alcibiades’ assault on Washington, DC, it’s presented as a mob with signs reading things like: “No Justice, No Peace”, “Equality”, and “#Justice”. It’s a nice thought, pays homage to the struggles of our Veterans, and it looks like people are rallying behind Alcibiades. Except in the text, Alcibiades and her army are sacking the city. Misanthropic Timon tried to pay her in gold to fund the campaign. It makes the unfortunate parallel of making #blacklivesmatter and LGBT protesters, sound like warmongering rebels. It seems like Off the Quill paid little to no attention to what’s being said in the script, and instead tried to simply force-slam modern concepts into the story without any care as to what was being presented.
In regards to the acting, Tamieka Chavis is a really lovely choice for Timon. Possessing on one hand, a loving, charming, genial air, which over the course of the play turns to white-hot rage and misanthropy at the world around her. Chavis deftly navigates that journey, carrying us through the confusing world of politics and through Timon’s tragic decline. Jenna Murphy does a fine job with Flavius, speaking her lines with elan and ease in her soliloquies, and showing connection and strong chemistry with Chavis. Greta Boeringer had a few lovely moments as the cynical Apemantus. Problematically, though, many of the actors were dropping lines left and right; often large chunks of text. Over the course of the show, the actors dropped, paraphrased, substituted, and sometimes ad-libbed at a very uncomfortable rate . This was made painfully obvious by the supertitles at the top of the proscenium.
The technical elements were a mess across the board. Light cues and sound cues came in haphazardly, sometimes a quarter of a scene too early, which the actors would plow doggedly through. They should all be commended for continuing on despite the numerous technical issues. There appeared to be no cohesion between any of the artistic choices in design. Truly, the costumes, designed by Grace Mitchell and Director Katie Wanschura, were the only technical element of the show that worked.
For the projections, the sound quality was all over the place, leading to moments that were too soft and hard to hear, or too loud with a lot of residual scratching noises that made me worry that the speakers in the theatre were going to blow. As for the visual, we would watch as a mouse moved across the screen on Windows Media Player to play the projected video clip.
Theatre is a much more difficult craft than we give it credit for. There are a myriad of elements that go into each show, each segment of which contains its own mountain of work to be done. That requires time, dedication, and effort, which the entire team possessed in the utmost. The entire cast, despite numerous technical problems both in performance in and the production, attacked their parts with vigor and enthusiasm, but that’s only so exciting to watch for 90 minutes of mostly-Shakespeare.
My suggestion to the folks at Off the Quill would be to simplify, focus, and hone their ideas. At the end of the day, this felt like a production that was trying to cram too many good ideas into one package, and as a result, not enough attention was paid to any one facet. This is, however, the joy of Fringe: The ability to go big, try hard, and learn from the experience.
Timon 2016 . Adapted by Katie Wanschura from William Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens . Director: Katie Wanschura . Cast: Tamieka Chavis, Elise Berg, Michael Fowle, Boneza Hanchock, Greg Jones Ellis, Brian Moors, Jenna Murphy, Don Myers, Melissa B. Robinson, Sarah K. Scott, Mindy Shaw . Assistant Director: J. Peter Langsdorf . Choreography: Kathleen Moors . Producer: Marlowe Vilchez . Lighting: Patrick Mullen . Costumes: Grace Mitchell, Katie Wanschura . Props, Sound, Video: Katie Wanschura . Produced by Off the Quill . Reviewed by Jon Jon Johnson.