Center Theater Studio

Even the Bard had an occasionat off play. But, forsooth, ’tis passing strange that something so full of sound and fury (and signifying nothing) as The Life of Timon of Athens should have appeared among such late treasures as King Lear and Coriolanus. Trying to explain it away, scholars see Timon as the first version of a play Shakespeare never finished, mainly because it reads like a rough draft of a writer who can’t disguise his boredom at the story he’s forcing himself to tell.

As usual for his ancient-history plays, Shakespeare drew this one from Plutarch’s Lives. The classical world’s most famous misanthrope, Timon was an extravagant and narcissistic spendthrift who after dispersing his bounty among his so-called friends received nothing from the parasites but ingratitude. Poor and extremely bitter, the ex-prodigal leaves Athens to live in a cave like a beast. His only friend is the young Alcibiades, whom Timon characteristically befriends because “I know that one day he shall do great mischief unto the Athenians.” (The best story about Timon is that before he cut down a fig tree from which Athenians used to hang themselves, he considerately gave the townsfolk one last chance to use it, he was also famous for paying robbers to kill people.)

Shakespeare may not have put his heart into Timon, but you’ll find great chunks of his spleen. Here the subject of ingratitude, always a constant theme, turns obsessive: the play exists mainly to fulminate, Timon’s passionate curses sometimes suggesting Lear’s more powerful diatribes. Recognizing the resemblance, Coleridge called the play a “lingering vibration of Hamlet” and a “Lear of domestic or ordinary life.”

But, as Dogberry says, “comparisons are odorous.” Timon is no Lear; he’s a hollow puppet who at the drop of his fortunes leaps from the naivete of reckless vanity to mad misanthropy. Apparently weary of Timon from the start, Shakespeare merely describes him from the outside, something he never did to Lear. So the plot has all the urgency and predictability of an illustrated sermon, and, except for Timon, the sandwich-board characters could pass for personifications in a medieval allegory.

It may be labeled either poetic justice or just simple ineptitude, but Center Theater’s deadly revival of Timon is every bit as bad as the play. This production, a by-product of Frank Farrell’s “Shakespeare Ready Workshop,” only proves how unready these ten actors are to tackle even fifth-rate Bard or to charge money for what they haven’t learned. Farrell, in his own art a master thespian who knows Shakespeare like his shadow, just can’t share his wealth.

If Center Theater picked Timon because, unlike Hamlet, it is a show with no standards, they should have left bad enough alone. Aside from three performances, this stinker huffs and puffs, stops and starts, blows hot and cold, and goes nowhere slowly for over two hours. You know a show’s in trouble when its puppets look less wooden than its actors and its masks have more expression than anything under them. If this is your first Shakespeare, just say no.

On top of stumbling over and mumbling through his lines, Ronald Kuehne does the worst thing you can do as Timon–he’s tentative. Timon never once hesitated before launching a rant, but from Kuehne’s passive tirades it’s apparent the actor keeps forgetting he’s angry. Or stupid or trusting or acting. In a role that lurches from one extreme to the other Kuehne perversely finds the golden mean.

Since Timon is virtually a one-man show, the title void takes its toll. But comparative competence comes from Amy Frazier as Timon’s Cassandra-like steward, Noe Cuellar as the strangely noble Alcibiades (the real Alci was an ego-ridden traitor), and especially Roger Kerson as a foulmouthed rival misanthrope (a role that recalls the scathing Thersites in Troilus and Cressida).

The rest of the cast ranges from serviceable to appalling, and one actor appeared to be drunk on more than Shakespeare’s words. Maybe he was just under medication. If it was hooch getting him through the performance, the least he could have done was to share it with the audience.