In Chicago Shakespeare Theater's new rethinking of Shakespeare's "Timon of Athens," the venerable London stage actor Ian McDiarmid plays Timon, "a psychological mess," the actor says, "a British lord in America, rich from birth and generous with money, then he loses that money and people turn their backs ...."
Excuse me, Ian, sorry to interrupt. But this can't wait — do people ever describe you as "dripping?"
"Well, yes, they do," he said, dripping irony. "Quite a lot. I'm 'dripping' everything. Usually, I'm 'dripping evil.'"
His voice is rich, Scottish, oily and duplicitous — the snake in the Garden of Eden sounded exactly like this. Indeed, it's hard to have a phone conversation with McDiarmid without picturing him on the other end shriveled up in hatred, his eyes burning in resentment, his face cloaked inside shadows, plotting the demise of the Jedi. But as unseemly as that is — to gloss over decades of celebrated stage work and a best actor Tony (for his role alongside Ralph Fiennes in the 2006 Broadway production of "Faith Healer") — pretending McDiarmid wasn't central to"Star Wars" is no easier than pretending Paul McCartney wasn't in the Beatles.
McDiarmid played Emperor Palpatine, architect of the dreaded Empire — Darth Vader's boss, basically.
"That role hasn't impeded anything in my career," he said, dripping geniality. "If anything, it's added things. Palpatine is a man whose hatred goes deep. Timon has hate, but it's different — he is disappointed in mankind, and people have told him to get lost, except he doesn't exactly get lost. See, people bring their preconceptions to me, which is quite OK, because the challenge then is to subvert those expectations."
But sometimes those expectations churn in reverse. Barbara Gaines, founder and artistic director of Chicago Shakespeare, and director of "Timon of Athens," said she really hasn't seen McDiarmid in a "Star Wars" movie. Not really. She has known him for about 15 years, but from his London stage work. "I walk though rooms sometimes and one of those movies is on the TV," she said, "and recently I did and Ian was on and I sat down and I watched a lot of it, actually. I was kind of mesmerized by him — by the movie itself."
Which is no small feat.
McDiarmid acted beneath geological layers of latex. Worse: When he wasn't buried under rubber, he was performing opposite wood — namely Hayden Christensen, who does not have five decades on the London stage behind him. But like Timon, let's be generous here. While making the first "Star Wars," Harrison Ford famously told George Lucas: "You can type this (expletive), George, but you sure as hell can't say it." Indeed, few could. Alec Guinness could. And so could McDiarmid. He's been drippingly memorable.
'Timon of Athens'
When: Through June 10
Where: Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Courtyard Theater on Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave.
Tickets: $44-$75 at 312-595-5600 and chicagoshakes.com