Interview: The American Shakespeare Center doubles down

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Rene Thornton Jr. plays the lead role in Timon of Athens. The play serves as ASC’s completion of Shakespeare’s canon. Rene Thornton Jr. plays the lead role in Timon of Athens. The play serves as ASC’s completion of Shakespeare’s canon.

The American Shakespeare Center in Staunton reached two milestones this season: the quarter-century mark and the completion of Shakespeare’s canon. All but two of the 38 plays we attribute to Shakespeare were published in the First Folio in 1623, and with its current production of Timon of Athens, ASC can claim performances of all of them.

Possibly Shakespeare’s most obscure and difficult play, Timon of Athens is rarely staged and even more rarely produced with love and skill. Scholars question whether the play was actually staged in Shakespeare’s lifetime, and many argue that a good chunk was written by Thomas Middleton. Speculation comes from Timon’s direct contrast to its canonical bookends, the psychologically intense and diversely plotted Measure for Measure (1603) and King Lear (1605). Focused on the singular peripeteia of Timon, who apparently lacks family and history, the story plays out like a medieval morality tale, full of dead ends and archetypes. The script is rich in language, however, and imbued with universal relevance, and it also offers the best collection of Elizabethan insults. “Were I like thee, I would throw away myself,” and “Would thou were clean enough to spit on,” are two favorites.

As part of the Actor’s Renaissance season, ASC’s production was staged in a classic Elizabethan practice: four days of rehearsal, no director, no stage lighting or set, and multiple, gender-blind casting.

René Thornton Jr. expertly carries the titular role, with genuine effusion and a deft shift into grounded misanthropy when he finds himself betrayed. Tim Sailer’s Flavius is high-strung, antsy, and endearing in his concern for Timon’s welfare, and Jonathan Holtzman treats Alcibiades, grateful friend and grim warrior, with austere, soldierly deference. The real standout is Josh Innerst’s Apemantus, played with wry wit, nuanced delivery, and impeccable stage presence. The few times I’ve seen Timons, Apemantus acts like a stodgy and disagreeable buzzkill, but Mr. Innerst invests contagious value in his character and seems to take real pleasure from his lot. ASC’s strong ensemble supports Timon’s chorus continuously.

As always, ASC treats this play with intelligence, skill, and passion. Artistic Director Jim Warren spoke with C-VILLE Weekly about the milestones and the future of the American Shakespeare Center.

C-VILLE Weekly: Was completion of the canon ever a conscious goal? Or was it more of an inevitability after 25 years of Shakespeare?

Jim Warren: We always said “eventually we’ll do them all,” but I didn’t have us on any kind of set schedule to make it happen. A few years ago, as I was putting together ideas for an upcoming year, I noticed how few we had left to do. I saw that if I put this title here and that title there, then we would be able to complete the canon during our 25th anniversary year.

Timon of Athens is a famously difficult play. What unique challenges does it present?

Timon gets a bad rap, in my opinion. I think it’s a magnificent play. It’s not very well known—most audience members probably won’t know the story when they come to see the show—and it takes the title character (and the audience) on a wild ride from the mountaintop of success to the deepest pit of despair.

Compared to a play like As You Like It, it’s a different kind of ensemble piece. Timon has four chunky roles and a ton of tiny roles; As You Like It is filled with more meaty roles and a lot less doubling among the troupe. Timon [also] has two different banquet scenes to stage, a cave, and a hole to dig, each with their own thorny staging issues. Most of all, you have to cast the right person as Timon, someone who audiences can understand, like, admire, and care about, so the play stays interesting when he gets crushed. Productions of this play fail when you don’t give a damn about Timon.

Is there a need to approach one of Shakespeare’s more obscure plays differently than one of his more popular ones?

Clarity of story is always priority one at the ASC, no matter how popular or obscure the play is. With a more popular title, we’re still going to have a lot of folks seeing it for the first time. Perhaps they read it in school and didn’t have a good experience, or they’ve been to other theaters and seen crummy productions where they couldn’t follow what was going on with the smoke machines, set changes, and modern special effects. But when it’s a more obscure title, we have a bit more pressure on us because even more folks will be seeing it for the first time.

Each of Shakespeare’s plays is a unique animal with its own particular challenges. We want all of our choices to be ones that help tell the story, help draw you in, help you become part of the world of the play so we can go on the journey together.

Twenty-five years and still going strong. What’s on the docket for the next 25?

We’ll keep doing what we’ve been doing: recovering the joy and accessibility of Shakespeare’s theatre, language, and humanity by exploring the English Renaissance stage and its practices. There’s a never-ending combination of plays, actors, costumes, props, use of our Blackfriars stage at home, and turning spaces on the road into the flavor of an Elizabethan/Jacobean playhouse. We will always bring fresh food to this never-ending banquet.

We’ll go through the canon again, eventually. We’re going to keep on top of the ever-evolving scholarship and continue to milk Shakespeare’s staging conditions for his plays and plays from other periods that thrive in this staging environment. Eventually we’ll try Chekhov, Ibsen, and Beckett, in addition to having new plays written for our space and staging style. Eventually we’re going to build a re-creation of Shakespeare’s 1614 Globe Theatre.

“I feel now the future in the instant” [Macbeth].

Rene Thornton Jr. plays the lead role in Timon of Athens. The play serves as ASC’s completion of Shakespeare’s canon.

PAT JARRET

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