Sunday, March 6, 2011

Timon of Athens: Smart and Engaging Production of a Problematic Play

Richard Thomas as Timon
Timon of Athens, which may or may not have been written by Shakespeare, is seldom trotted out for public viewing due to its reputation as a confusing mess of a play—either a lesser work by the bard or a not-ready-for-prime-time collaborative effort by two or more of his contemporaries.

Thus, I attended the current production at the Public Theater with some trepidation, not expecting much but drawn by curiosity about a play I’d neither seen nor read before, not to mention the allure of the $15 ticket price.

So—drum roll please—it gives me great pleasure to offer up kudos to all involved for giving us this very accessible and most engaging Timon, directed by Barry Edelstein and performed by a very able cast, headed up in the title role by Richard Thomas, someone I never would have imagined to be so solid a Shakespearean actor.

Edelstein has taken the five-act original and broken it into two, and each act has its own tone and style. Some of the critics have found the two parts somewhat incompatible, but I have a different take, which I will explain anon.

But first the plot: In what we shall call Act I, Timon, a wealthy Athenian, surrounds himself with men he considers to be his closest and most trustworthy companions. He provides for their entertainment and lavishes generous gifts on them in the naive belief that this is simply what good friends do for one another. The seeming friends are, not surprisingly, eager to be the recipients of Timon’s largesse but are also quick to turn their backs on him after he has spent himself into ruinous debt.

In Act II, having lost his home and his worldly possessions, not to mention his trust in his fellow man, Timon has become a mad hermit, hiding out in the wilderness and declaiming: “I am Misanthropos, and hate mankind.” In his few encounters with others, he rails against humanity for its inhumanity, and in the end dies alone, likely by his own hand.

One hypothesis about the play’s creation posits that Timon represents a collaboration between Shakespeare and Thomas Middleton, who counted The Revenger’s Tragedy among his works. Middleton was a member of Shakespeare’s theatrical company, which makes the idea at least plausible. But more convincing is the shift in the aforementioned tone and style of the play itself. The language of the first half of the play fits in well with the Jacobean age, more cynical and modern-seeming than the second half, which is far more Elizabethan (i. e. Shakespearean) in its use of heightened tone and poetic language.

Assuming Edelstein and company did not tinker with the language of the play itself, the stylistic transition from Jacobean to Elizabethan is quite pronounced. It might be the reason some critics have found the play disjointed. Another way of looking at it, however, might consider the change in language to reflect the change in Timon’s world view. A modern take would be that Timon suffers from a bipolar disorder. We see him in the early scenes displaying a manic personality—partying all night, throwing around his money with a patent disregard for the consequences. Then, in the second half, we see his descent into a generalized rage that turns in the end to despair and suicide. While the play toys around with being a more typically Jacobean revenge tragedy—there is a subplot involving a military rebellion that Timon supports—it may be that Shakespeare had something else in mind altogether as he took over the writing duties.

For me, at least, this production of Timon of Athens amounts to the unearthing of a previously undiscovered treasure. Coming on the heels of the terrific Broadway production of The Merchant of Venice, along with still-evolving but generally strong presentations of works by Middleton and his peers by the estimable Red Bull Theater, Timon is yet another example of how Americans are finding new ways of thinking about these classic dramas without the use of fake British accents or silly gimmickry. I look forward to more such discoveries.

In addition to praising Edelstein and Thomas, I would like to tip my hat to scenic designer Neil Patel, who has managed to make much out of little, to the fine guitar work by Simon Kafka, and to actor Triney Sandoval (a standout, as well, in the recent A Free Man of Color) who ought someday to play Harpo or Chico Marx in a production of Minnie's Boys or Animal Crackers

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