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Timon of Athens

Well, Not Really

Folger Theatre, Washington, D.C.
Thursday, June 1, 2017, F–8&10 (middle stalls)
Directed by Robert Richmond

Timon sits on the floor in a dirty white shirt, pants, bare feet, a bowl next to him; standing behind him is Apemantus in casual jacket, checkered shirt, black and white striped scarf, and painter's hat holding up a tomato in his hand and speaking toward it
Apemantus (Eric Hissom, standing) visits Timon (Ian Merrill Peakes)—or not—in the Folger Theatre's production of Timon of Athens. This Timon is played as psychiatrically impaired. Photo by Teresa Wood, Folger Theatre.

This Robert Richmond–helmed production of Timon of Athens at the Folger Shakespeare Library’s theater is not really William Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens. Rather, it is what Richmond thinks Timon represents. Therefore, a review of this production shouldn’t legitimately proceed in a Shakespearean context when a broader theatrical context—as in, “Is it any good?”—probably is the most proper way to assess it (and the short answer to that contextual question is, “meh”).

Ah, but this production, labeled on the playbill as “Timon of Athens by William Shakespeare,” was playing at a Shakespeare-aligned theater with several established Shakespeareans in the cast. Oh, and I'm writing this for, too. So, having established that the words but not necessarily the plot of this play are, perhaps, by Shakespeare, we’ll proceed in a Shakespearean context, which requires a more convoluted answer to the question, "Is it any good?"

We'll start with that “perhaps by Shakespeare” point in the previous sentence. Timon of Athens may not be a problem play but it is a play with a lot of problems, hence its rare staging. Many scholars see another hand in the composition, the general consensus pegging that hand to be Thomas Middleton’s. I, among others, consider Timon an unfinished play, a first draft with dangling plot lines, choppy narrative, passages festering with redundancies, and unformed characters. Notably, no record exists of the play being performed before its publication in the First Folio.

Whatever the play's genesis, directors who tackle it must contend with its compositional problems or risk dumping their audiences into a fog of confusion. I’ve seen directors meet that challenge with varying degrees of success in three productions, but the fourth production I saw blew through the composition’s challenges and established Timon of Athens as a bona fide Shakespearean classic. That production had no director; it was part of the 2014 Actors’ Renaissance Season at the American Shakespeare Center’s Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia, in which the troupe of actors stages plays among themselves with no production crew and a week’s worth of rehearsal. Given the legacy that production left among the Blackfriars actors and patrons, such working conditions ended up being a perfect crucible for the play to take full form.

That form is both a cautionary tale and an indictment on self-centered society as Timon, a wealthy lord of Athens, fetes his friends, commercial acquaintances, society big shots, and other hangers-on with huge feasts and generous gifts long after his own coffers have emptied and his estate has fallen into debt. After first ignoring the warnings of his faithful steward, Flavius, Timon sends the steward to solicit loans from friends and senators, all of whom decline with various manifestations of ingratitude. Timon hosts another lavish feast, this time serving the ingrates rocks and water and beating them out of his house. Then, with fervent cursing against all mankind, Timon banishes himself to the woods outside of Athens. There the play’s second half unfolds with Timon, digging for roots, finding gold instead, which now he finds too loathsome. Word of the discovery gets back to Athens, and all the sycophants trudge out to greet him, only to meet with his intense enmity even as he gives them gold (which he now sees as the worst evil he can impart on his enemies). Meanwhile, Athens’ military hero and Timon's friend, Alcibiades, who had been banished by the Senate, mounts an invasion of Athens, and Timon refuses to help either side.

With proper editing, Timon of Athens proves to be a gripping, timeless yarn (though especially timely in 21st century society), and Timon’s speeches become sterling blank verse passages. Honing the script also reveals some keenly realized characters, including Flavius the steward, a nameless poet and painter, and Apemantus, a Jacques-like figure (As You Like It) who gets into a hilariously heated exchange of insults with Timon in the woods as the two try to out-misanthrope each other.

Embracing the intent and themes of the text, therefore, would be one way to successfully stage Timon of Athens. Richmond, however, rarely embraces the intent and themes of Shakespeare plays he has helmed for the Folger, including Julius Caesar, Richard III, Henry V, and Twelfth Night. Rather, Richmond latches onto extratextual contexts of his own imagining and pursues these self-serving thematic arcs even when Shakespeare’s texts don’t support them.

Thus, his Timon of Athens “deals with a deeper, darker subject than the downfall of the rich aristocrat,” Richmond writes in his program notes. “It explores the physiological destruction of the human spirit when outcast by a society and left to survive with nothing.” He likens Timon to a homeless person on the streets of Washington, D.C., as Timon “expounds his hatred for those that have rejected him in his time of need, curses those that have received his generosity but have shown none in return.”

That’s an interesting reading, but it's not Shakespeare’s Timon, who, though certainly quite angry in the second half , most certainly is not mad in a physiological sense. His reaction to finding the stock of gold—"Ha, you gods! why this? what this, you gods? Why, this will lug your priests and servants from your sides, pluck stout men's pillows from below their heads: This yellow slave will knit and break religions, bless the accursed, make the hoar leprosy adored, place thieves and give them title, knee and approbation with senators on the bench"—is too acute to be the ramblings of a broken mind as Ian Merrill Peakes plays Timon in this production. Shakespeare was consistently specific in his depictions of insanity throughout his career, from Ophelia and the Jailor's Daughter to the feigning madness of Titus Andronicus, Hamlet, and Poor Tom. Given Shakespeare's standards for madness, that Timon remains in his full senses throughout the play is integral to the play's thematic point.

“We have been working on distilling the essence of Shakespeare’s play and bringing the story into the 21st century while remaining faithful to the language and imagery of the original,” Richmond writes in his program notes. The last half of that assertion is false; this production demonstrates faithless regard for the text by altering the purposes of certain passages to suit Richmond's revised narrative flow, and it does not hew to the allegorical arcs Shakespeare built. But, yes, the production does go to great lengths to place Timon’s Athens in a just-around-the-corner future.

The star of this production is Scenic Designer Tony Cisek, who outfits Timon’s home with metal standards and rails on the perimeter like golden scaffolding. A diamond motif on the ceiling is mirrored by a similar pattern in lights on the floor. A screen across the facade identifies the guests arriving through an iris-scanning security corridor at the back of the stage, and that screen also illustrates Timon digitally transferring Bitcoins and the ownership of his horse to his friends. At the pivotal feast, Timon serves his guests feces rather than rocks, and then we move into the play’s second half—but not into the woods. Timon appears to have remained in his otherwise deserted mansion, the superstructure now plain and dull without the bathing of golden lights. He finds the gold stored in a floor vault (as he was looking for roots; I guess he thought it was a storm cellar). He repeatedly strains to remember "a tree, which grows here in my close,” a line that actually occurs (singly) at the end of the play describing a tree near his cave in the woods that, before “mine own use invites me to cut down,” Timon offers to the citizens of Athens in their time of peril so that they can hang themselves from its limbs.

Peakes’ Timon shows signs of mental instability early in the play: he's constantly using sanitary wipes and has an obsessive compulsive tendancy to, as he ascends his mansion’s stairs, take a jitter-step to the right on the second riser. A Moog-like soundtrack accompanies the play, escalating into an ear-imposing whine when Timon descends into moments of mental cramping. Though not having anything to do with Shakespeare's Timon, this is the production's most insightful point, as, to me, it represents the tinnitus I associate with my own bouts of depression. Another indication of Peakes' Timon slip-sliding out of reality comes when Apemantus speaks his cynical asides during the banquet in the opening act: as the rest of the cast pause in tableaux, Peakes' Timon listens to Apemantus as if it were a voice in his head.

Delineating between what's real and what's Timon's delusions becomes persistently problematic for the audience in the play's second half when various characters visit Timon. The staging indicates that the visits might be real (or might not), or that only portions of the visits are hallucinations. If Alcibiedes (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh) with his invading army on its way to Athens does pass through Timon’s house in Athen, it's simply one of several logistical conundrums of this production. Furthermore, the hallucinatory staging renders the usually stellar Eric Hissom as a two-dimensional specter in his portrayal of Apemantus, wandering about the stage in and out of lights while delivering his verbal slaps at society's hypocrisy and Timon's subjugation to it. Though visually enigmatic, Hissom's Apemantus is dramatically (and comically) hollow, lacking any of the egotistical bile at the root of Apemantus’s misanthropic shtick. One choice Richmond makes that I do like is presenting three of Timon's false friends in the play's first half, identified by the iris scanners as an entrepreneur, a venture capitalist, and an investment manager, as the three bandits who come to rob him in the second half (whether this scene is another Timon fantasy or not, I like the double portrayals).

Timon in three-piece gray suit sans jacket stands in front of other cast members lined up on purple lightd stage and set, with Apemantus up on a balcony to the left.
Timon (Ian Merrill Peakes, center) greets the guests to his banquet in the opening act of Timon of Athens at the Folger Theatre. On the Tony Cisek–designed set are, from left, the Poet (Michael Dix Thomas), the Jeweler (Sean Fri), the Merchant (Kathryn Tkel), the Painter (Andhy Mendez), Ventidius (Louis Butelli), and Alcibiades (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh). Apaemantus (Eric Hissom) watches from the balcony to the left. Photo by Teresa Wood, Folger Theatre.

Peakes is one of the great Shakespearean actors of the D.C. theater scene, and he does an admirable job playing Richmond's Timon, carefully constructing his every step, tick, pose, and line reading. Nevertheless, the performance represents wasted talent as I'm convinced Peakes would have achieved an ascendant performance if he instead had played Shakespeare's Timon, linking the generous Athenian lord of the play's first half with the raging misanthrope of the second half via a thread of codependency disorder. Antoinette Robinson does get to play Shakespeare's Flavius (albeit, regendered as a woman), and she does it well. Robinson's Flavius is a smart accountant who's also cognizant of Timon's fragile mind, and she remains loyally by his side through his downfall, then refuses to take Timon's gold when he offers it to her as reward for honest service (I don't think her visit is hallucination). What's lost in this portrayal of Flavius is the context of the steward being so dutiful in and of herself without the aspect of Timon's mental illness prompting her ongoing care.

Such reinterpretations of Shakespeare's plays are kind of like digital translators who turn foreign texts into senseless phrases. This complaint has nothing to do with being a traditionalist, which I'm not; Fiasco's Two Gentlemen of Verona and Cymbeline as well as the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's production of Pericles, all at the Folger, were anything but traditional; yet they were grounded in Shakespeare's thematic and theatrical intents as they ascended to brilliant representations of those works.

So, to the question of whether this production of Timon of Athens is any good in a Shakespearean context, the long answer is, "meh."

Eric Minton
June 21, 2017

Reader response:

Thanks, Eric, for this thoughtful review. You raise many excellent points about the failings of this production—in particular the ransacking of the text for words Robert Richmond's turns to his own purposes. I also found that in this as in many of his past productions, Richmond far too often turns drama into pageant. Even in scenes when characters are speaking to each other they both face the audience. So, rather than enacting conflict, the scenes merely impart information, and all the dramatic life just blows right out of the play. This is a travesty: unlike some of his lesser contemporaries (I won't mention John Fletcher by name), Shakespeare always wrote scenes that crackled with life. Even the best special effects can't match the energy that comes from real give-and-take between characters on stage. What Richmond does with these texts is perverse.

Richard Smith
June 26, 2017

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