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Timon of Athens
Additional Thoughts by Elyse Sommer
The middle of humanity thou never knewest, but the extremity of both ends. When thou wast in thy gold and thy perfume, they mocked thee for too much curiosity; in thy rags thou knowest none, but art despised for the contrary. If thous't hated flatterers sooner thou shoulds't have loved thyself better now. What man didst thou ever know unthrift that was beloved after his means?
— Apemantus (the churlish philosopher's wise words to the dispirited Timon)
What a savvy idea it is for the brand new Public Theater Shakespeare LAB to present Timon of Athens, one of Shakespeare's less known and lesser admired plays, for its inaugural production. This is not to say this new venture devoted to the plays by the Bard needs to focus on his more obscure or controversial works. This fine and unpretentious production, under the direction of Barry Edelstein, already suggests what an artistically authoritative signature can and should be. To borrow from their own mission statement: "bring Shakespeare at his most spare, clear, and muscular to a wider community of theatergoers."
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Of all the Bard's plays, there is a prevailing dreariness and stodginess about Timon of Athens that is close to impenetrable. Happily this is far from the case in this production. With some strong principal players in the fore and with Edelstein's assertively audacious direction in support, it becomes as close to an entertainment as is possible.
Any success with the play rests on the shoulders of the actor who undertakes the title character. Here it is Richard Thomas, and he is terrific. No matter that there is only an occasional smattering of exalted lyricism for him to speak and that no amount of coaxing is going to make us care a whit about this character, a philanthropic nitwit. Thomas bestows upon Timon an endearing cloak of wholesomeness. Although Thomas has a long career that has included many roles in Shakespeare, this is his debut at the Public on Lafayette Street (he did play Touchstone in the Delacorte Theater's As You Like It in 2005). In the more difficult and occasionally boring stretches in Act II, Thomas rants, rages and finally succumbs to his fate with a genuinely heartbreaking resolve.
This version of the play shows Timon descending from riches to rags during a fairly modern era as indicated by the mid 20th century attire, although not quite modern enough to suggest that it is happening in our own post-bailout times. To add to the general effectiveness of Edelstein's many and mostly amusing directorial flourishes, we have the agitated underscoring (by composer Curtis Moore) of the action played on an electric guitar by an aloft Simon Kafka, and during the party scene a 16 millimeter projector shows the perennial favorite Christmas movie It's A Wonderful Life followed by a quickie peek at a vintage porn flick.
Residing in his palatial home, skimpily but also cleverly presented by set designer Neil Patel (a few upholstered straight back chairs, a black table and a few scattered chandeliers that also serve as objects d'arts)m Timon is more than wealthy. He is overly generous, obsessed by the concept of extravagance to burn. The three-quarter in the round design of the Anspacher Theater, braced by its awesome Corinthian columns, provides a perfect frame for the play. Timon's excessive/compulsive behavior is brought to a halt when his creditors demand some instant cash. He then has to face the facts that his fair-weather friends are not going to help him in his time of need.
The play is generally criticized for its lack of tension, romance and humor. It doesn't take us long to realize that Timon has little conflict to either contend with or to explore, other than to face the fact that he is suddenly broke, friendless, and seriously disillusioned. We do, however, become involved with Timon's demeanor as he changes from
a man defined by his excessive largesse, gullibility, and finally to a man devastated and finally derailed by his naiveté.
Just as Act 1 establishes Timon's mad and haphazard generosity, a sudden reversal comes in Act II as an unkempt Timon, his hair grown long and straggly, finds temporary seclusion in a sand pit in the ground. He does take good care of his bodily functions and we see him dispose of his excrement in the sand. All I could think of was "thanks for sharing." Despite the impressive range of rage and outrage that Thomas demonstrates, it is a little difficult to remain fixed on his repetitive denouncements on the ingratitude of man which tend to become monotonous.
That this shapeless shadow of a satirical, comical, tragedy is filled with barely realized supporting characters is a fact that could make some cynical of its pedigree. Nevertheless, a bearded, shoulder bag toting Max Casella allows the right kind of dramatic cynicism afforded to the philosopher Apemantus to inform on the action throughout the play. Unable to cover up his uncompromised love for his foolish employer, Mark Nelson never lets the steward Flavius's undying loyalty for him leave his face or the tone of his voice.
The character of Flavius is the only one who expresses any real feeling that might be described as love. As there is no female character in the play, there is no consideration of Timon having a romantic attachment, and certainly nothing to suggest one with Flavius. This version smartly omits the superfluous presence of the two mistresses that are occasionally known to tag along with the exiled Captain Alcibiades (a formidably introspective performance by Reg E. Cathey.)
One has to admire the widely varied and broadly comical personalities that assert themselves as wealthy Athenian's, including David Manis as Lucius, Chris McKinney as Lucullus and Triney Sandoval as the most outrageously buffoonish Sempronius. The wryly subtle performances of Greg McFadden as the poet and Orville Mendoza, as a painter also help provide the distinctively satiric edges to a play that is sorely in need of them. Also commendable are Che Ayende and Cary Donaldson as Timon's devoted servants.
No one knows for sure whether Shakespeare was in the process of doing an extensive rewrite of a play by Thomas Middleton (a member of Shakespeare's company) or whether Timon of Athens was his own work in the early stages of development. It was never produced during Shakespeare's time. Whether it is his own or not, we are left with a rather muddled work in need of the kind of deliberate and delightful tampering that Edelstein has done.
Timon of Athens
By William Shakespeare (from the front page of the draft of this version) "And maybe Thomas Middleton, Well, half of it, Well, parts of it. Actually, maybe only a little of it. It depends on whom you believe. Um. Kind of."
Directed by Barry Edelstein
Cast: Richard Thomas (Timon), Max Casella (Apemantus), Reg E. Cathey (Alcibiades), Mark Nelson (Flavius), David Manis (Lucius), Chris McKinney (Lucullus), Triney Sandoval (Sempronius), Che Ayende (Servilius), Cary Donaldson (Lucilius), Tom Bloom, David Manis, Chris McKinney, Triney Sandoval (Senators), Brian Keane (A Merchant/An Officer of the Senate), Anthony Manna (A Jeweler/Caphis), Greg McFadden (A Poet), Orville Mendoza (A Painter), Tom Bloom (An old Athenian, A Stranger), Joe Paulik (Cupid/Philotus).
Scenic Design: Neil Patel
Costume Design (Katherine Roth
Lighting Design: Russell H. Champa
Sound Design: Leon Rothenberg
Video Design: Andrew C. Kircher
Music by Curtis Moore
Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes including intermission
Anspacher Theater at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, New York, NY.
(212) 967 - 7555
Performances: Tuesdays at 7 PM; Wednesdays through Fridays at 8 PM; Saturdays at 2 PM and 8 PM; and Sundays at 2 PM and 7 PM.
From 2/15/11; opening 3/01/11; closing 3/06/11
Review by Simon Saltzman based on preview performance 02/25/11
Additional Thoughts by Elyse Sommer
This plain yet elegant production with Richard Thomas as Shakespeare's big spender who finds himself not only broke but without the support of his friends, has got to be the biggest theatrical bargain on any New York Stage. At $15 a ticket, this is a run don't walk recommendation.
I saw Timon of Athens the same night as Simon Saltzman and am very much on the same page with his take on this staging and the performances. Therefore just a few additional thoughts on the absence of female characters.
For Thomas Shadwell, who was the first to adapt the script for the earliest recorded performance (after Shakespeare's death), the main reason he and others considered it unfinished and lacking in dramatic tension was the lack of female characters. This all male focus is contrary to Shakespeare's other plays which are filled with memorable, pivotal to the plot women.
Just think. . .what would The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare's other play about money recently produced by the Public, be without Portia and Shylock's daughter?
Shadwell decided to provide the missing finishing touch and his version, entitled The Man-Hater, gave Timon a mistress. Shadwell justified this in his Preface with "I can truly say I have made it into a play." Several later adaptations further built up the female factor, in one case focusing on Timon in love and in another making him the father and ramping up the female population by making his offspring a daughter. As Simon pointed out, there have also been versions in which Captain Alcibades was accompanied by several mistresses.
While the party scene in the original also featured a few women, it was strictly as non-speaking entertainment with the women dancing and playing musical instruments. In short, they were strictly eye candy and not in any way integral to the plot. Neither were two courtesans who appeared at the end and spoke 3 lines each.
Given that the play focuses on a male world and the deceptive and corruptive reliance on gold and other valuable commodities is what fuels self-esteem and pleasure, Barry Edelstein's substituting a family values and a pornography film is indeed an apt and clever substitute for meaningless female roles.
Imperfect and short on Shakespearean poetry as Timon of Athens remains, an imaginative director and full-throttle Timon can make following the spendthrift nobleman's vicissitudes enlightening and entertaining. That's certainly true for Barry Edelstein's staging and Richard Thomas's performance.
During the 13 years Curtainup has been on line, we've covered many of Shakespeare's plays multiple times (to give a count of just a few: Romeo & Juliet 14, Hamlet 26 Othello 11 Macbeth 18 with 2 coming up). But we've had a chance to review Timon of Athens only twice and both those productions were in London. So who knows when you'll have a change to see it again — and in such an inventive production, and at this affordable price. Unless there's an extension, that run don't walk is an imperative since, like all the Public's LAB plays, it's a very brief run that ends March 6th.
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