‘Timon of Athens’ a timely portrait at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

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Ian McDiarmid (center) in the title role of Timon with the company of Chicago Shakespeare Theater artistic director Barbara Gaines’ production of William Shakespeare’s “Timon of Athens,” which is playing through June 10, 2012.

Although there are no point-for-point correspondences in its storyline, it would be easy to think of director Barbara Gaines’ fast-moving, ingenious, slickly modern production of Shakespeare’s rarely produced play, “Timon of Athens,” as a sort of Elizabethan-era twist on “Enron.” And, given the play’s Athenian setting, you might also find yourself musing on how this deftly contemporized version of a play that is all about money (and the loss of it), might be received on a stage in Greece these days – a country where money (and the seemingly sudden disappearance of it) is of the essence.

Of course “Timon” also is deeply concerned with matters beyond fluctuating wealth – such things as false friendships, ill-considered largesse and the symbiotic nature of flatterers and the easily flattered.

Perhaps most crucially, this production arrives on the Chicago Shakespeare Theater stage bearing the star power of Scottish-bred actor Ian McDiarmid, who is known around the globe for his portrayal of Palpatine in the “Star Wars” films. (Legions of young fans reportedly wait for a glimpse of the actor outside the theater these days.)

Small and wiry, with spare white hair, a neat little beard, a slyly impish bearing and an impressive level of physical agility and energy, McDiarmid (whose accent bears a hint of both a burr and a lisp) is front and center throughout much of the play, particularly in its second act. And he brings an intriguing blend of decency and shallowness, effete swagger and self-deceptive blindness to his canny portrayal.

Timon is a man who has made a fortune on the stock market. He is known for lavishly wining and dining everyone from business colleagues and military and government officials to artists (while fully enjoying the social perks of great wealth), and he has quickly bailed out friends who have gotten into financial trouble. Yet when he himself falls into sudden, serious debt his so-called “friends” respond to requests for help as if he had contracted the plague.

Faced with this stunning wake-up call, Timon heads into exile in the wild, far from Athens, and dubs himself “Mr. Misanthropus.” As luck would have it, his fortunes shift yet again, but this time he uses his stash of gold as a curse he bequeaths to his enemies – men who will beg, steal and murder for the stuff.

Gaines is up to her well-honed storytelling tricks here – not only choosing a play ideally fit for our times, but deftly sharpening its edges.

The play (with an almost entirely male cast) begins with a phalanx of traders seated at an electronic ticker. It then moves to a high-end, minimalist-chic, glossy-white dinner party scene complete with entertainment, including an R&B singer (the excellent Sean Blake), and gothlike Black Swans who shift from ballet moves to sexcapades. The second act finds Timon in a rugged seascape, with set designer Kevin Depinet’s “coup de theatre” scene change winning sustained applause on opening night. (Depinet must not be sleeping these days; he also designed the stunning sets for “The Iceman Cometh” at the Goodman Theatre.)

Each supporting role is expertly cast and played, with James Newcomb as the ever-cynical philosopher; Sean Fortunato as Timon’s ever-loyal employee; Danforth Comins as an angrily disillusioned military officer; Timothy Edward Kane and Kevin Gudahl as fawning artists; and David Lively, Terry Hamilton, John Byrnes, William Dick and Bruce A. Young as various turncoats.

Mike Tutaj’s projection design, Robert Wierzel’s lighting, Susan E. Mickey’s costumes and Lindsay Jones’ original music and sound all enhance the effect in this play in which Shakespeare reminds us that (a) no good deed goes unpunished, and (b) the craven nature of our fellow human beings can know no bounds.

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