By JK Clarke
It takes an extraordinarily special talent to take Shakespeare’s more problematic—or “less compelling”—plays and make them not only interesting, but downright exciting. Theater for a New Audience (TFANA) as a whole and Director Simon Godwin in particular have exhibited that skill time and time again, from TFANA’s lush version of the lower-tier Pericles in 2016 to Goodwin’s (and TFANA’s) gripping presentation in 2017 of the complicated Measure for Measure. Both were as good as any top notch production of better known and loved classics like Macbeth or Romeo and Juliet. So, it comes as no surprise that Godwin (in association with the Royal Shakespeare Company and Shakespeare Theatre Company) and TFANA, have done it again, taking the very seldom performed (it’s safe to say that most Shakespeare aficionados have only seen the play once or twice, if at all) Timon of Athens, making a few minor tweaks, and creating a powerful, entertaining play—now running through February 9 at TFANA’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn.
The story of Timon of Athens is one so straightforward that it feels at times like one of Aesop’s Fables. Timon—a wealthy Athenian Lord, originally written as a male character, but switched here to female and played expertly by Kathryn Hunter—is a gregarious hostess who loves to support the arts and bestow gifts on friends and well-wishers. It matters little to her that the artists she supports are remarkably short on talent; rather, she ravishes the spotlight, and loves to be adored by the sycophants who flock to her side with surreptitiously (or not always so) outstretched palms. She believes little in the value of gold: “You shall perceive how you/ Mistake my fortunes; I am wealthy in my friends,” (II, ii) she tells Flavius, who knows otherwise. Predictably, when she runs out of money and goes to these same “friends” for help in paying her creditors, they turn their backs. Appalled and enraged, she throws a final banquet; but, instead of lavishing them with gifts, as was her wont, she spatters them with blood then douses them with water. Destitute, she flees to the countryside and secrets herself in a cave, where she discovers a cache of gold, making her rich again. When she chooses not return to civilization, rumors of her newfound wealth reaches the leeches, who trek out to suck up once again. But she rejects them and underwrites an armed rebellion against the city.
Central to the story of Timon of Athens are the devoted friends and servants who warned Timon against her greedy supplicants. In what seems like a parallel with King Lear, the professional cynic Apemantus (perfectly played by Arnie Burton as a delightfully snarling punk, complete with a Patti Smith t-shirt and a messenger bag; punk being the appropriate response to any age of excess) is her erstwhile Fool, dazzling her with wordplay and condescension for her foolishness, just like Lear’s Fool. Despite his misanthropy, Apemantus proves to be her one true friend when everything comes crashing down. Flavius (nobly portrayed by John Rothman), Timon’s head-of-household, tries repeatedly to warn Timon of her impending financial doom; and later tries to rescue her from the wilds. Alcibiades (Elia Monte-Brown), the spited Athenian soldier, both admires and pities Timon, incorrectly believing Timon also wants revenge against the city. But Timon is more broken-hearted than anything else and plunged into a such a cynical view of mankind that she shames three would-be thieves into leaving their life of crime.
Timon of Athens is one of Shakespeare’s later plays, likely written a year or two after 1605 (his final plays were likely written in 1613) and possibly in collaboration with playwright Thomas Middleton. But this production feels decisively Shakespearean, with its arc of tragic betrayal brought on by naïveté. The theme may also be a nod to the newly crowned King James who initially attempted unification in a divisive socio-political climate but was nearly blown to bits by the Guy Fawkes Gunpowder Plot conspirators on November 5,1605. Here, under Godwin’s apt direction, we are treated to a sumptuous, yet modern, gilded set that speaks to the luxe and excesses of Timon’s world. She wears gorgeous, coordinated gowns with compelling geometric, almost space-aged themes (Soutra Gilmour designed the perfectly matching set and costumes that evoke notions of precious metals: copper, gold, silver), which are then harshly contrasted by the formless rags she wears and actual dirt she digs with an actual shovel in her self-exile. Hunter’s Timon exhibits the energetic glee of Ruth Gordon circa Harold and Maude, as even in her grief there’s an inspired mania. Donald Holder’s lighting design adds nuanced and shaded mood to already intricate scenes.
It’s unlikely that most theater-goers will have an opportunity to see another production of Timon of Athens anytime soon, and even if they do the chances of it being as nuanced and powerful a production as this one are slim. And it’s proof once again that even among the weakest, Shakespeare’s works are nothing less than sublime.
Timon of Athens. Through February 9 at Theater for a New Audience’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center (262 Ashland Place, Downtown Brooklyn). Two hours, 30 minutes with one intermission. www.tfana.org
Photos: Henry Grossman (except where indicated)