“Timon of Athens” is so seldom performed, theatergoers seeing it for the first time in the new Cutting Ball Theater production may be shocked at how vibrant — and how topical– it is.
Often considered an also-ran in the playwright’s canon, Shakespeare’s late-period play, smartly directed by Rob Melrose, seems tailor-made in this contemporary San Francisco setting, where high-tech entrepreneurs rake in millions while turning a blind eye on the homeless sleeping on the streets just outside.
Those extremes of rich and poor are embodied in the play’s title character (Brennan Pickman-Thoon, who makes his first appearance as the wealthy Athenian in a sleek suit and sneakers.)
As the play begins, Timon’s riding high, a “great lord” with extravagant tastes and a large coterie of hangers-on who revel in his lavish parties and gifts. Shallow and sanctimonious, his self-regard is monstrous: “I have often wished myself poorer, that I might come closer to you,” he tells them.
When the money evaporates and his debts become insurmountable, Timon turns to his friends for help; one by one, they refuse. Enraged, he takes his revenge, serving them a cruel final banquet before retreating to a cave in the woods.
Melrose, who co-founded Cutting Ball in 1999 and did a staged reading of “Timon” soon thereafter, has returned to the play with a wealth of insight. The urgent, glittering first half is fast-paced and often very funny.
If the second half, with its echoes of “King Lear,” “Hamlet” and “Coriolanus,” feels slower, it contains some of the play’s most beautifully poetic writing.
As Timon, filthy and haggard, confronts the Athenians outside his makeshift tent, railing at them and renouncing the world, the General Alcibiades (Ed Berkeley) makes a steady rise to power. Military might, Shakespeare suggests, is always ready to fill the political void.
Melrose contains the action on Michael Locher’s sleek platform set, enhanced by Heather Basarab’s lighting designs and Cliff Caruther’s sound.
Pickman-Thoon’s articulate Timon is well-supported by eight actors playing multiple roles.
Courtney Walsh is a standout as Flavius, Timon’s anguished loyal steward; David Sinaiko strikes acerbic notes as the cynical Apemantus. Berkeley is an aptly muscular Alcibiades, and Adam Niemann is an articulate Poet.
Radhika Rao, Douglas Nolan, John Steele Jr. and María Ascensión make essential contributions as senators and courtiers.
Despite the specificity Melrose and company achieve in the characterizations, “Timon of Athens” remains a play about society and the corrosive effects of wealth.
Here, too, the production succeeds — painting an indelible picture of social inequities in Athens, and those in our own.
Timon of Athens
Presented by The Cutting Ball Theater
Where: Exit on Taylor, 277 Taylor St., S.F.
When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays; closes April 29
Tickets: $15 to $45
Contact: (415) 525-1205, www.cuttingball.com