Arts theater review

MIT Shakespeare Ensemble takes on the YouTube stage

‘Timon of Athens’ but make it a 2021 reality show

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Nelson Niu plays Timon in MIT Shakespeare Ensemble’s ‘Timon of Athens.’
Courtesy of Eryn Gillam

Timon of Athens
Directed by Alexis Rappaport
Produced by Nelson Niu and Alex Evenchik
Starring MIT Shakespeare Ensemble
Streamed April 10 and 17

This April, MIT’s Shakespeare Ensemble premiered their production of Timon of Athens on the grand stage of YouTube. Despite this deviation from the ensemble’s typical theater setting, the two-hour, modern-day spin on the Shakespeare play did not fail to deliver the same degree of flare, creativity, and fun that the group’s in-person shows have always done. The modernized story followed the blueprint of Shakespeare’s original play where Timon, a wealthy lord, falls into despair and loneliness after losing his wealth and pride to his toxic relationships. This premise does not sound too far off from the world of reality stars and influencers, and the production latched onto this parallel by turning Timon of Athens into an fantastically outlandish 2021 reality show.

Timon (played by Nelson Niu ’21) is a socialite diva, who is loose with his money and loves a good party. The people he surrounds himself with also love those things but turn out to be manipulative social climbers whose lack of sincerity breaks his trust in humanity. The characters are all exaggerated to imitate the superficiality of social media and fame addicts that we see today in real life.

Unlike the stage, the camera gives each character their own spotlight, allowing the audience to become more familiar with the individual characters and observe the acting with greater intimacy. Niu, who plays Timon and also co-produces the show, explained, “when you’re on stage, especially when you’re doing something hard to understand like Shakespeare, you need big movements so that everyone in the audience can see what your character is trying to do. On the other hand, the camera already catches every little detail of your face.”

Timon is at the center of some of the play’s most passionate and electrifying moments, and Niu certainly works the screen as he does the stage with his bold gestures and facial expressions. While this carries the style of “big movements” necessary for theater, he also skillfully utilizes the medium of film by moving towards and away from  the camera and choosing powerful moments to lock eyes with the lens. Although Niu professed that he’d never done film acting at this scale before, he and the rest of the cast bring a natural energy that makes the screen come alive. With everyone in their own frame, it’s easier for the audience to watch their subtle reactions and dynamic facial expressions and movements and to understand the individual characters on a more personal level.

The constraints of the screen definitely create a different atmosphere from an in-person play production, where all members share the stage and feed off of each others’ presence. Even walking is something that a virtual setting cannot capture as well. The Shakespeare Ensemble seemed to understand the limits but also the new freedoms provided by the video format. The ensemble did not attempt to simulate the visuals of an in-person stage production, instead utilizing shots only of the upper halves of the actors and allowing their faces and voices to speak for themselves. Although actors were captured by separate cameras and different frames, they still felt together on screen. This cohesiveness was partially due to the backdrops, designed with different colors and details for each character that established not only the setting but also the tone for each scene. We see this attention to detail from the bright colors and displays of wealth in Timon’s LA mansion to the darker toned dinner scene before Timon flees the set of Timon of Athens.

Snappy editing, cutting effectively between different characters, camera angles, and framing, brings the powerfully acted piece together. It felt like the characters were really speaking to each other in the same location, with their voices overlapping and lines of gaze matching up. Considering the detailed work that must have gone into creating this effect, it’s incredible that the production came together in a month. Undoubtedly, in addition to the talented cast, the crew responsible for tasks like editing, stage management, composing, set design, scenic art, costume design, and lighting played a new and major role in this well-executed video. Set designer and scenic artist Maya Levy ’21 summed up the experience appropriately: “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.”

Beyond the show’s technical and acting accomplishments, the video has a playfulness that takes full advantage of the creative freedoms of the format. From exaggerated and indulgent commercial breaks to comical (and actually helpful!) captions, the video’s quirks bring smiles and laughs to the viewer. Hand-drawn backdrops are mixed with realistic footage of lavish mansions and pools, playing up the scale of this reality show world. These exaggerations could only be accomplished through video, and other modernized moments with screens showing social media feeds and news anchors exploit the opportunity for mixed media to bring the production in and out of this wonderfully absurd world.

You can’t help but admire the freedom with which the cast and crew tell this story. The actors fully occupy their characters, projecting and emoting with complete abandon. It’s uplifting to see the spirit of the MIT Shakespeare Ensemble continue through these physically separated times and take on a new life on the virtual screen. Timon of Athens has overcome many challenges to successfully deliver what the Shakespeare Ensemble does best — a fun, witty, and slightly crazy show for the MIT community.

Update 5/13/21: The Shakespeare Ensemble’s full performance of Timon of Athens can be viewed online here.