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STAGE REVIEW

A rare and welcome view of ‘Timon of Athens’

Allyn Burrows stars in “Timon of Athens,’’ presented by Actors’ Shakespeare Project. Allyn Burrows stars in “Timon of Athens,’’ presented by Actors’ Shakespeare Project. (Stratton McCrady)
By Louise Kennedy
Globe Staff / May 28, 2010

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"Timon of Athens,’’ a play by William Shakespeare . . . oh, but with this play nothing, not even the basics, is that simple. So let’s start over.

“Timon of Athens,’’ a play probably written by William Shakespeare, but most likely in collaboration with someone else, generally assumed to have been Thomas Middleton, maybe in 1607, is rarely produced because it is (choose one):

A. Wildly uneven

B. Weakly structured

C. Centered on an unknown, unsympathetic misanthrope

D. Too depressing

E. Unlikely to draw a crowd because of all of the above

Well, go ahead, choose all. But then go and see the Actors’ Shakespeare Project production anyway. Develop your own thoughts on this brusque, intermittently brilliant, and tantalizing corner of the canon, at Midway Studios, in Fort Point Channel, because you’re not likely to see another professional staging in this lifetime. You’re certainly not likely to see a more persuasive one.

Bill Barclay, who is best known as a composer, here and at Lenox’s Shakespeare & Company, also acts, directs, and lectures on Shakespeare. All his experiences come to bear in his set design, song composition, and, especially, direction of this show. With a post-industrial wasteland of a set, a crew of highly disciplined actors running choreographed riot in multiple roles, and appropriately clangorous songs, Barclay here crafts a “Timon’’ that is mostly as riveting as it is rough-hewn.

The director has made judicious cuts and rearrangements, so that the play’s flaws, though still visible, are less distracting than they might be. And what comes across is a strong narrative of Timon, a dangerously generous man who turns dangerously enraged when his fortunes fall and his sycophantic friends fall away with them. The parallel subplot, in which the Athenian captain Alcibiades also turns against his fellow citizens, remains only loosely hitched to the main story, but the strength of Barclay’s design — and the starkly black, white, or gray costumes by Anna-Alisa Belous — help hold things together.

So too does the mesmerizing performance of Daniel Berger-Jones as Alcibiades, moving from charming youth to incendiary fury when his plea for mercy toward a fellow soldier goes unheard. Berger-Jones’s delivery of the disenchanted captain’s curse on Athens is nothing short of chilling.

Allyn Burrows, newly named artistic director of the company, has some fine rages of his own as Timon — though his innate polish and physical grace work against him in the later scenes, where we are to see Timon as a wild, barely human hermit, self-exiled to the woods. Even with smears of dirt, Burrows’s features are simply too elegant to turn beastly. Still, his vocal power and his complete command of Shakespearean language give his Timon the necessary brute force.

The (usually) equally elegant Will Lyman, meanwhile, is almost unrecognizable beneath a scruff of stubble and a shaved head. He’s also acerbically entertaining as the relentlessly cynical Apemantus, the only friend who values Timon for more than his lavish parties and gifts. Well, loyal Flavius, the steward, sticks by his master, too — or her master, in this case, because Bobbie Steinbach plays the role, with a fierce bulldog posture and fearless declamation that fully convey Flavius’s loyalty and courage.

As for those false friends, Steven Barkhimer, John Kuntz, Joel Colodner, and Michelle Dowd have a merry, malevolent time with them all. The production opens with Barkhimer, as a fawning painter, showing off his nearly abstract “portrait’’ to Kuntz, as a pretentious poet. The dialogue between them, as they point out telling details in the mural-size work (a witty pastiche by Emily Nichols), is a hilarious sendup of downtown artiste chic — and that’s just one set of the many sharply etched caricatures that Barclay (and, yeah, Shakespeare and/or whoever) treat us to.

Barclay (with lighting designer Jeff Adelberg) uses the scene to execute a neat theatrical trick as well. It begins entirely in a sickly yellowish gray, so that we think the painting, like the painters, is devoid of any living color. Then — poof! — the lights shift, the colors are revealed, and some antic comic byplay begins. It’s a sweet coating for the bitter disillusionment to come, and an ingenious way to draw us into Timon’s unfamiliar, forbidding world.

Louise Kennedy can be reached at kennedy@globe.com.

TIMON OF ATHENS Play by William Shakespeare

Directed by: Bill Barclay. Set and songs, Barclay. Costumes, Anna-Alisa Belous. Lights, Jeff Adelberg. Music and sound, Peter Bayne. Props, Ellie Anders. Mural, Emily Nichols. Presented by: Actors’ Shakespeare Project.

At: Midway Studios, through June 13. Tickets, $25-$47, 866-811-4111, www.actors shakespeareproject.org