in Yerba Buena Gardens
by Richard Dodds
Outdoor theater in San Francisco is always a risky business – dress in layers, as they say – and when you are performing in a popular public space, the variables are multiplied.
"The other night when we were rehearsing, this guy in the distance started picking up the dance moves," said John Fisher, director and creator of Theatre Rhino's Timon! The Musical. "I thought, why is that actor way back there? And it was like, oh my God, he's not part of our show. And then he just left. It was actually really cute."
Fisher's adaptation of Shakespeare's exceedingly obscure Timon of Athens is being performed at various points around Yerba Buena Gardens, with the actors and the audience taking the journey together at three performances beginning June 5. "We start in Jessie Square in front of the Contemporary Jewish Museum, we cross Mission Street moving to the esplanade at the Martin Luther King Jr. fountain, and then we're taking a trip across the sky bridge to the Children's Creativity Museum park. There's stuff happening all the way during the 80 minutes."
That stuff doesn't contain much of Shakespeare's original dialogue, which ranks low in the Bard's canon, and is supplanted with Fisher's contemporary satire about arts funding, with musical-comedy numbers by Donald Seaver giving the cast a chance to sing and dance. "But the plot of Timon is actually very contemporary," Fisher said. "Timon is a big supporter of the arts with a lot of friends, but then he loses his money and nobody likes him anymore. It's this weird thing of buying popularity in our culture." Rhino regular Donald Currie heads the cast of 20 as the title character.
Instead of the Athenian government that has a central role in the original Timon, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors often comes up in the dialogue. "But we only have one politician that we actually name," Fisher said. "It's this certain local sheriff."
Rhino's production of Timon! The Musical is part of the annual Yerba Buena Gardens Festival that presents dozens of free events through the summer and early fall. "Yerba Buena is probably the only arts organization we don't make fun of in the show," Fisher said.
Timon marks a return to Yerba Buena for a Fisher free-form adaptation of Shakespeare. Titus! was staged there in 1998, and Linda Lucero worked on the show as a facilities coordinator. She is now artistic and executive director of the festival, and happily agreed when Fisher suggested another go at Shakespeare in the gardens.
"That was in 2009, and suddenly there was no money," Fisher said. "But when the economy bounced back, we both still wanted to do it."
The city's recent financial bounty figures into Fisher's interpretation of Timon. "The amount of money there is here now, and our expectations of what you think you're entitled to as artists really does follow Shakespeare's play," Fisher said. "In the worst-case scenario, the money was available to you at one time, but then that that donor's interest has changed doesn't make them a bad person. You have to learn it's a continuum, and that you're part of a family."
Timon! The Musical is site-specific in ways that go beyond the usual meaning of the term. "The musical is set in San Francisco at Yerba Buena Gardens right now, and we reference everything around us, the museums, the church, all the new development – like how a 30-story skyscraper can become a 40-story skyscraper if you put a tiny museum in the basement. But if someone built a 50-story skyscraper and put Theatre Rhinoceros in the basement, I wouldn't complain."
Timon! The Musical will have performances at 7 p.m. on June 5-6, and 1 p.m. on June 7 at Yerba Buena Gardens. Admission is free. More info at therhino.org.