ARTS Rob Melrose first read one of Shakespeare’s least-produced plays, Timon of Athens (through May 6 at Cutting Ball Theatre), in a contemporary English version his teacher at Yale had produced. 

“Usually when you first read Shakespeare, it’s a lot of looking down at the notes. And this way I was just able to enjoy the beautifully poetic speeches,” Melrose said. “It has so much humor and sarcasm.”

When Melrose and Paige Rogers founded the Cutting Ball, one of their first projects was a staged reading of Timon of Athens for the Bay Area Shakespeare Marathon. Melrose wanted to use his teacher’s translation, but the organizers wouldn’t allow it. They told him he could cut as much as he wanted out of the original, though. So Melrose slashed most of the first three acts, getting to the poetry, powerful speeches, and cynicism that comes later in the play.

It’s a concentrated approach that suit the contemporary staging: Timon has been transformed into the “hottest CEO this side of Market Street: he’s young, he’s rich, and there’s nothing he likes better than hosting a wild party and spreading wealth amongst his flocking friends.” Athens is San Francisco’s “near-future: a city marked by radical gentrification and sweeping economic disparity.” 

In Timon, which Shakespeare wrote with Thomas Middleton, the protagonist can’t do enough for his friends. When he loses his money, his friends are nowhere to be found and he ends up living outside the city, under a tarp. Now seems like the perfect time to do Timon in San Francisco, Melrose said. 

“The theater is in the Tenderloin and all these tech companies are moving in and things like exclusive speakeasies are popping up where you need a password, and then you’ve got people living in tents,” he said. “There’s a line in the play about The middle of humanity thou never experienced, but the extremity of both ends — and that seems like San Francisco right now.”

Usually if a theater company has committed to doing Shakespeare’s canon, by the time they get around to Timon, the actor who plays the lead is often the same one who plays King Lear, Melrose said. He changed that to make it more familiar to San Francisco. 

“In most communities, a rich person is an old person,” he said. “Here a rich person could be a 20-year-old who created an app.”

Melrose wanted to make the wealth and poverty feel familiar to contemporary San Francisco so, using ideas from the cast members as well as his own, there are iPads, Google maps, and ostentatious parties. And when Timon retreats from the city and lives in poverty, his house is a tent and his face is burned by the sun. 

“Hamlet says that we should hold a mirror up to nature,” Melrose said. “It’s always more interesting to see ourselves reflected onstage, to see a life we already understand, and that makes the play much clearer.”

At the end of the play, Alcibiades, the military commander, marches on Athens. This feels different and more profound since he did the play in the late ’90s, Melrose says. 

“Especially during time of Trump, having a guerilla army come and throw you out of power has a lot of potency,” he said. “Since we did this, there’s been Occupy Wall Street and the WTO in Seattle and the Women’s March, and it definitely feels like Alcibiades’ occupation is speaking truth to power more than it did 20 years ago.”

TIMON OF ATHENS
Through May 6
Cutting Ball Theater, San Francisco  
Tickets and more info here