Timon of Athens
nytheatre.com review by David Fuller
February 25, 2011
Shakespeare’s rarely performed Timon of Athens is being given a fine production at The Public Theater under the direction of Barry Edelstein, who is Director of the Public’s Shakespeare Initiative. The initial offering of the new Public LAB Shakespeare project, and adhering to LAB tenets, according to the program, Timon of Athens is here done with minimal design elements with the focus “on the actor, the text, and the story.”
The story of Timon of Athens is simple. A wealthy Athenian, Timon, makes it a practice of giving his bountiful largess to a coterie of sycophants, out of a love for giving and for the concomitant number of friendships thus created. When Timon learns that his coffers are bankrupt he looks to his supposed friends for financial support to stave off his creditors. These fair-weather friends deny Timon and this rejection drives him mad. He goes to ground, literally living off the land as a cave-dwelling forager. The misanthrope of misanthropes, he eschews human contact in extremis. [Spoiler alert.] Not even his finding the means to get himself back into society, literally a pot of gold, sways him from his hermetic course. Ultimately, he takes his own words, “I am so sick of this false world,” to heart, loses any will to live, and expires.
The cast of 15 men, all excellent Shakespeareans, gives a clear rendition of Edelstein’s edited text with strong emotional underpinnings to their characters. Particular standouts are Reg E. Cathey as Alcibiades, the wronged military captain who seeks revenge on Athens; Mark Nelson as Flavius, the well meaning and loyal steward to Timon; Triney Sandovan, the wonderfully simpering Sempronius; and Max Casella as Apemantus, Timon’s philosopher-foil, a pragmatic realist. If spaced allowed, I would name all 15, who are equally strong.
In the title role, Richard Thomas does not give us a star turn, something for which he should be commended. Instead, he renders a fully believable man whose faith in humanity is challenged to the point of apathetic nullity. He invests Timon’s early generosity with a joyous unflinching belief in the inherent goodness of mankind. This Timon doesn’t just see the glass as half full, he thinks the glass overflowing. Because we can believe this Timon’s rose-colored view of the world, we are able to understand and follow his fall to utter despair. This is usually a problem inherent in playing Timon, whose black and white view of things is difficult to believe by a 21st century audience bathed in daily doses of irony. Here, Thomas pulls it off splendidly. I would only caution him to find some vocal nuance in his final rant before intermission, where he tends towards uniform high volume and slightly loses the audience. Still, he makes up for it in Act Two with such an honest portrayal that all told his Timon is wonderful to watch.
Edelstein directs the show at a pleasingly brisk pace, using the set and set pieces provided by designer Neil Patel in always interesting and sometimes ingenious ways. I suppose Patel’s set is budget conscious, given the aforementioned Public LAB Shakespeare guidelines. However, it is not Shakespeare on a shoestring and the scenic elements and properties would be the envy of most New York indie theater Shakespeare presenters: modular tables, chairs, chandeliers and an elegant carpet in Act One give way to scaffolding, a construction tarpaulin, trouble lights, and dirt-filled traps in the second act. Of course, the Anspacher Theater itself is a gem for acting Shakespeare, large yet intimate, with a marvelous vaulted ceiling.
The other designers collaborate well: Katherine Roth’s costumes, Paul Huntley’s wig (for Timon in Act Two), Russell H. Champa’s lights, Leon Rothenberg’s sound, and video by Andrew C. Kircher, all work together for Edelstein’s concept. Lending appropriate ambience, Curtis Moore’s original incidental music is performed live on an amplified guitar.
Though the time and place are not indicated in the program, the music, costumes, and particularly the props point to a pre-computer 20th century world. Perhaps slightly removing the play from the present day allows us to view the proceedings from a certain objective distance, but Shakespeare’s message is very timely, though somewhat simplistic: beware who you think are your friends for money never buys true friendship. Still, Edelstein’s concept allows for some fine stage pictures—for instance, a particular use of adding machine tape is very effective and evocative. There is to my mind an unneeded a vista execution, where the technical safety aspects are made obvious. Yet, this quibble is erased by the actors’ effective use of the execution for motivation and also the designers’ use of it to tie in a set change.
All in all, Timon of Athens is not a great play. The only person one truly likes is the title character, and he is maddening to watch because he refuses to grow out of his funk. One longs for him to take that new found gold and wreak revenge on those narrow minded Athenians! But the action of the play is unrewardingly linear. So, the joy comes in watching the acting. This company doesn’t disappoint in that regard and for that it is well worth seeing.