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A CurtainUp Review
Timon of Athens
By Dan Rubins
At the same time, though, is it a product of our anxious Bardolatry that we only make Shakespeare share his byline when we need an explanation for a play's missteps? Middleton's been posited as a likely contributor to Macbeth and Measure for Measure , too, but you'll never see him cited in a program alongside Shakespeare. (Not that he needs the recognition — Middleton's best devious and often demonically funny stuff, like The Changeling, Women Beware Women , and, my favorite, The Revenger's Tragedy , outdo lots of lesser Shakespeare.)
My suspicions are that the Royal Shakespeare Company's embrace of Middleton has less to do with a scholarly pushback to the myth of sole Shakespearean authorship than with the central problem that Timon of Athens presents is whether this is a Shakespeare play?
To my ear and mind, both the poetry and the philosophy sound convincingly Stratfordian. The question I want to ask isn't, " Is this is a Shakespeare play?" but, "Did Shakespeare write it?"
Director Simon Godwin's athletic reimagining of texts, often wringing out their unexplored comic potential, has helped widely familiar Shakespeare plays newly soar: his buoyant Twelfth Night at London's National Theatre was the best, most inventive production of that play I've ever encountered.
Here, though, in a seldom-produced work that is philosophically agile but far from whimsical, Godwin's arduous effort to make Timon of Athens spark with freshness feels all too visible. Instead of revealing the fun in Timon of Athens , Godwin more frequently reinforces the sense that this is a work resistant not only to playfulness but probably to performance. I've seen two Timons before, each of them in robustly acted and staged productions, and Godwin's is surely the most successful at making the material sizzle. But there's no getting around the fact that its structure poses seemingly insurmountable hurdles. The first half of the play charts Lady Timon's downfall by gradual attrition as one by one her friends, who intentionally all blend together, fail to help her as her debts accumulate. Despite her ample generosity — in the first scene alone, she pays off a dowry and bails a guy out of jail — she realizes that all of her followers only ever saw her as an ancient Athenian ATM, a benefactor but not a bestie. Once she's given up on the material world, Timon flees to a cave in the woods where many of her old companions show up to chat, each with their own agenda. The two rounds of serial exchanges — first as Timon's friends abandon her, then as they pursue her in the outdoors — defy Shakespeare's usual shapely plotting.
Godwin combats the repetition of the play's early acts by sometimes staging sequential scenes as simultaneous, overlapping events. Momentum picks up when three servants of Timon visit three "friends" on different parts of the stage at the same time to plead for support for their master. (Those servants, by the way — Helen Cespedes, Adam Langdon, and John Rothman — give stand-out, compassionate performances in their loyal devotion to Timon: it's a curious irony of the play that Timon's servants love her the best.) But, even with those textual compressions, it's all still episodic, just gauzy variations on a theme.
Lady Timon, of course, is usually Lord Timon, but the title character is played here as a woman by the nimble, versatile actress Kathryn Hunter, who I last saw at TFANA as an acrobatically airborne Puck. This gender switch — and several others throughout the play — do well to disable the depiction of an old boys' network of patrons and flatterers: Timon's treacherous community seems less distant as a result.
In Timon's reinvented state in the second half of the play, she becomes the Fool and King Lear all at once, a self-aware, curmudgeonly spirit of the woods who finds fulfillment only in shedding the opulent trappings of her identity. She becomes a second Jacques, a melancholy philosopher desperate for the world to leave her be. She's also, to leave Shakespeare behind, an early Thoreau, immersing her body and soul entirely in nature: while the interlopers talk to her, she gardens, seldom looking up at them. She's had a vision of civilization as it really is, and she'd rather die than remain a part of it (and she follows through on that — this is one of Shakespeare's tragedies, remember).
Hunter's Lady Timon sheds ostentatious gilded gowns for a scrappy forest life in which she takes delight in pissing in a bucket when company calls. Post-intermission Timon seems practically unrecognizable; Hunter adroitly signals the retroactive discovery of Lady Timon's dysphoria in her wealthy world.
But while Hunter remains wickedly thoughtful, especially in her tenderly sparring exchanges with the professional Fool, Apemantus (Arnie Burton), Lady Timon is ultimately the object of a parable, not its active subject. Like her director, Hunter can't force Timon of Athens to take on the theatricality or the propulsive sense of storytelling it lacks.
That's not for lack of trying. The most striking elements of Godwin's production are the delightful, mood-branding interludes of Greek music by Michael Bruce, played by a live band, and the off-text rebranding of the vengeful soldier Alcibiades (Elia Monte-Brown) as a social justice warrior. Using passages from other plays, Alcibiades becomes an anti-fascist leader whose gaggle of protestors eventually turn to violence. It's a lively interpolation, but it brings up unhelpful questions about the production's messaging: in a post-show talkback, Godwin unconvincingly suggested that Alcibiades' ultimate bloodthirstiness reflects how close the anger of such social justice movements hovers at the edge of criminality. I'm also not entirely sure why Godwin chose to set this production in the non-specific future: this is not a play that can afford more vagueness.
Soutra Gilmour's sweeping thrust set design of descending trees and towering rolls of carpet does make fine use of the Theatre for a New Audience space, constantly reinventing itself between Fairview's proscenium and Fefu and Her Friends' interactive spaces.
We experience the dramatic problems with Shakespeare's plays so palpably because they are Shakespeare's. I wonder, though, how would we react to Timon of Athens if it didn't have Shakespeare's name on it at all? Timon just doesn't behave like any other Shakespeare play and Timon doesn't behave like any other Shakespeare protagonist. Would I be more likely to relish its structural unconventionality and celebrate its unlikely themes — it's an epic meditation on friendship! — if I wasn't comparing it to Julius Caesar and As You Like It ?
If only, like Lady Timon, we could, maybe just once, free ourselves of the trappings of the material world — shaking off authorship along with everything else — and take in this weird, unlikely play with no expectations at all.
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by William Shakespeare and Thomas Middleton
Directed by Les Waters
Cast: Shirine Babb, Arnie Burton, Helen Cespedes, Liam Craig, Zachary Fine, Yonatan Gebeyehu, Kathryn Hunter, Adam Langdon, Kristen Misthopoulos, Elia Monte-Brown, Julia Ogilvie, Daniel Pearce, Dave Quay, and John Rothman
Set Designer: Soutra Gilmour
Costume Designer: Soutra Gilmour
Lighting Designer: Donald Holder
Sound Designer: Christopher Shutt
Composer: Michael Bruce
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes, with an intermission
Polonsky Shakespeare Center, 262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn, NY
From 1/11/20; opening 1/19/20; closing 2/9/20
Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays at 7:30; Saturdays at 2 and 7:30; and Sundays at 2
Reviewed by Dan Rubins at 1/18 performance
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