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BWW Reviews: The Porters of Hellsgate Plummet the Depths of TIMON OF ATHENS

"How this lord is followed!" exclaims a Painter in reference to Timon of Athens early in Act I of the play that bears his name. Director Charles Pasternak interprets the line quite literally by having his throng of greedy hangers-on trail behind Timon as he moves about the stage, billowing en masse like a bridal gown's train that sweeps and glides with every turn. The repetition of the exaggerated movement comically drives home its ridiculousness and leaves no doubt that in this Shakespeare play, the fools are everywhere.

TIMON OF ATHENS is the story of a man surrounded by false friends who are only concerned with the riches he bestows upon them. They enjoy his lavish parties and gifts of jewels and money, never thinking that one day the riches will end. When all of his extravagance eventually leaves Timon bankrupt, and his creditors call in his debts, he confidently sends to his pals for aid. The responses of his fair weather cronies are shameful; one is haughty, another defensive, all of them revealing what the audience has seen all along, that generosity cannot buy loyalty from a heart that isn't true. Enraged by their betrayal, Timon invites them to one last surprise banquet, serves them nothing but water and stones, then forsakes all of mankind and disappears to the woods, and eventual death.

It is a role that offers an actor the opportunity to explore great depths of vulnerability in a Shakespeare play that, according to press notes, hasn't been staged in Los Angeles in 15 years. It is also a tragedy that is widely believed to have been written by both William Shakespeare and Thomas Middleton, a one-time partnership that was never repeated.

Thomas Bigley is the altruistic Timon we expect to see but he also adds a brittle shadow behind the public face that gives him a slightly haunted quality, even in good times. His Timon laughs a bit too heartily and brushes off praise a little too automatically to distance himself completely from the shallowness of his friends. What it buys him is some truly exquisite moments of vulnerability when the shocking truth hits home. Breathless, defeated, yet clinging to a single possession - he silently walks off stage with a chair... and it is terrific.

His interactions with Apemantus, played by Cynthia Beckert, are equally as moving, especially in the later Acts. Both characters break the fourth wall regularly, sharing their thoughts with the audience as if they were also part of the discussion. Apemantus is the caustic voice of a cynical reality; the lone refuser of Timon's generosity, bitterly warning him that it is safer to trust oneself than to ever rely on another, for "men shut their doors against a setting sun." Beckert takes what could be a completely unlikeable character and allows a weary vulnerability to seep through. It's in the eyes and she nails the subtle changes like a pro.

David Ghilardi (also impressive) plays the general, Alcibiades, in a secondary story of banishment by the senate that parallels Timon's betrayal, though his tale reaches a very different conclusion. Pasternak appears in a nice double turn as a servant and a self-obsessed, posturing poet.

Sean Faye gives a beautifully understated performance as Timon's loyal servant Flavius, the only character with a true heart that never waivers. His actions consistently match his intentions, though that is not always the case with others. Some chew the scenery as if their life depended on it, more concerned with the sound of their own voice than in finding the truth in the text, or conversely, acting with their gaze fixed above the audience's heads. It may not have been as noticeable in The Porters' previous space because of the configuration of the seats but, here in the Actors Forum, it's hard not to notice it.

The theater also has limitations in its technical assets. Without a trap door in the floor or building a ground cover to facilitate Timon discovering hidden gold when digging for roots to eat, the third best option is bringing on a black box to simulate a hole in the ground, but it's never as effective in creating the illusion. There are dark spots onstage that the lighting doesn't address and the Grecian designs on the proscenium overpower the contemporary setting of the play.

Though it is never stated, an American flag and uniforms from our armed forces would cause one to conclude that the play is set in the U.S., however the text clearly places the action in Athens and there are no textual changes to denote otherwise. Metaphorically it makes sense that The Porters would use TIMON OF ATHENS as a blunt commentary on the greed rampant in our country today yet it was hard for me to reconcile seeing one location, but hearing another. Taylor Fisher's woodland painting on the back wall is a lush addition to the scenic design.

I like this young troupe of players and find it admirable that their goal is to be the first company in L.A. to produce Shakespeare's complete canon. This latest installment is a worthy outing that showcases strong acting in its leading roles and questions the things we value in life. Are they of substance or are they of air for as Shakespeare has said so much more eloquently than I, "the world is but a word; Were it all yours to give it in a breath, How quickly were it gone!"

May 3 - June 2, 2013
The Porters of Hellsgate
Actors Forum Theatre, 10655 Magnolia Blvd, North Hollywood, CA, 91601
Friday and Saturday nights at 8pm, Sunday matinees at 2pm
Running time is 2 ½ hours, including the 15 minute intermission
Tickets are $20, $15 for students/seniors 60+/AEA.
Reservations: 818-325-2055 or

Pictured above: Thomas Bigley as Timon. Photo credit: Greg Eidant Photography

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From This Author Ellen Dostal