Review

Shakespeare in the Ruins offers rare chance to see little-known play, but one you shouldn't pass up

Timon of Athens isn't Shakespeare's best-known play — or his best writing, frankly — but it's given a lively and inventive production by Shakespeare in the Ruins that largely overcomes many of the play’s flaws.

Obscure Timon of Athens given a lively, inventive all-female production at Trappist Monastery ruins

Timon of Athens isn't Shakespeare's best-known play — or his best writing, frankly — but it's given a smart and surprisingly funny production by Shakespeare in the Ruins that largely overcomes many of the play’s flaws. (Dano Tanaka/Shakespeare in the Ruins)

William Shakespeare is a famed genius thanks to plays like Hamlet, Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet.

He is not a famed genius thanks to plays like Timon of Athens.

The little-known and rarely performed Shakespeare play is, frankly, not among the great dramatist's best, notably possessing what is probably one of the most shrugworthy endings in the Shakespearean canon. 

So it's a brave choice for Winnipeg's Shakespeare in the Ruins to take it on during their 25th anniversary season — and so much the better that it's given a lively and inventive production that largely overcomes many of the play's flaws.

The play — a curious blend of tragedy, satire and morality play — centres around the titular Athenian, played here by Sarah Constible in Michelle Boulet's all-female production.

Set firmly in the "greed is good" 1980s thanks to Daina Leitold's effective design (think shoulder pads and big hair), this Timon of Athens becomes a resonant take on the corrupting influence of wealth — and the effects of either having or lacking it.

Timon is beloved by all, but only because she is generous literally to a fault. The poets, painters and socialites who sponge off her and abuse her boundless generosity soon leave her destitute, at which point they all turn their backs on their "friend" — who retires to the wilderness as an embittered misanthrope.

Sarah Constible, Julie Lumsden, Melanie Whyte and Lorraine James in Timon of Athens, set effectively in the 'greed is good' 1980s in Shakespeare in the Ruins' production. (Dano Tanaka/Shakespeare in the Ruins)

So yes, you can perhaps start to see why this one isn't performed so often.

Nonetheless, the strong nine-woman cast give it a production that's easy to like, making great use of its setting at the Trappist Monastery ruins.

With big, bold and sometimes outright campy performances, the first half of the lean two-hour (with intermission) production is often surprisingly funny.

There are delightful comedic performances throughout the cast (especially from Lorriane James, Julie Lumsden, Claire ​Thérèse and Melanie Whyte as Timon's fawning false friends), music and even a bit of dance (courtesy of the play's only male performers — but I won't spoil the surprise by saying more on that).

Andrea del Campo is a standout in the more light-hearted first half as the acerbic philosopher Apemantus, played here as a cerebral, hard-drinking, chain-smoking stand-up comic — a role del Campo plays to the hilt with spot-on comic timing (picture Dennis Miller in his cynical prime, with a dash of Sandra Bernhard).

Sarah Constible gives a masterful performance in the lead role in Timon of Athens. (Dano Tanaka/Shakespeare in the Ruins)

Constible is undoubtedly the star here, though, and rises to the occasion with a masterful performance. Her Timon is a swooning socialite in the first half, showing just the faintest traces of the utter desperation to be loved that drives her to give constantly to those around her, however unworthy.

There's even an echo of that in the far more sombre second act, as a near-feral Timon tries to turn her back on the rest of humanity. She spars with everyone who approaches her, including the quick-witted Apemantus, who Timon drives away — only to look longingly after her once she's gone. It's a sad and tender moment, as the comedy from earlier scenes takes on a dark edge.

No, Timon of Athens is not Shakespeare's greatest achievement. But this is a rare chance to see the play — and a smart, stylish and well-performed production makes it a chance you shouldn't pass up.

Shakespeare in the Ruins' Timon of Athens runs at the Trappist Monastery Provincial Heritage Park until June 23.