Ashland Review: Timon of Athens and the Play On! Project

Aug 23, 2016

  Dorothy Velasco reviews the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Timon of Athens and the controversial Play On! Project, which aims to translate Shakespeare into modern language. 

This is KLCC. I’m Dorothy Velasco with the Ashland Review.

“Timon of Athens,” now playing at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, is one of Shakespeare’s least-produced plays. The script may be a rough draft, possibly co-authored by Thomas Middleton. Whoever wrote it, “Timon” is a downer.

Timon, played by renowned actor Anthony Heald, is not a sympathetic character until nearly the end, when he ponders his misspent life. As a rich man he gives lavishly to friends, but when his business fails, the friends refuse to help. Filled with hatred he leaves the city to live and die in a cave.

Unfortunately, director Amanda Dehnert has made the play stomach churning, starting with a bloody banquet scene that sets an apocalyptic tone.

She could do that because the play is so little known. Meanwhile, a new version of “Timon,” adapted to modern American English, is scheduled for productions elsewhere.

The new “Timon” is a product of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Play On! project, commissioned by a donor to translate all of Shakespeare’s plays into modern English, but thankfully without changing the most famous passages.

The project has pros and cons, but this risky undertaking could end the production of Shakespeare’s works as we know them. Community theaters, high schools and colleges all present Shakespeare’s most loved plays. Shakespeare sells, and audiences keep coming, so do we really need new versions?

Artistic Director Bill Rauch promises the festival will continue to present the original plays, without promising never to produce the new versions.

Shakespeare scholars have written articles in leading newspapers expressing their alarm at dumbing down the exquisite language. James Shapiro of Columbia University suggests including a glossary in each play program. That would be a good quick fix.

I will try to keep an open mind as this project progresses. I hope we can accurately continue to call Oregon’s world-famous theater the Oregon SHAKESPEARE Festival.

This is Dorothy Velasco with KLCC’s Ashland Review.