Timon of Athens may be Shakespeare’s most puzzling play. Is it all Shakespeare or a collaboration? If the latter, with whom? The gifted Thomas Middleton or some lesser talent? And just which parts are Shakespeare’s and which not? If a Shakespeare solo, why not even better than it is? Based too closely on some earlier play? Left unfinished by the author? Written during some existential crisis?
Still, no one disputes that there is good stuff there, and that the play merits more revivals than it gets. Significantly, even the current mounting by Public LAB Shakespeare comes with an apologia in the program. The LAB’s are “minimally designed productions with short rehearsal periods” meant to “broaden the ranks of artists who work on Shakespeare in America” and with focus on “the actor, the text and the story.”
There is something louche about that special pleading. What else can the focus ever be on? And just what does the further promise “to bring Shakespeare at his most spare, clear, and muscular to a wider community” mean? “Spare” suggests dubious cutting of corners, “clear” smells of modernist tampering, and “muscular” may, I fear, mean turning Shakespeare into Spiderman.
<<<Che Ayende, Tom Bloom, Max Casella, Reg E. Cathey, Cary Donaldson, Brian Keane, David Manis, Anthony Manna, Greg McFadden, Chris McKinney, Orville Mendoza, Mark Nelson, Joe Paulik, Triney Sandoval and Richard Thomas.
I am relieved to report that Barry Edelstein’s version of Timon, though quite a bit shortened and with several characters eliminated, is still valid enough, and does get the play’s points—or at least most of them—hearteningly across.
The plot concerns Timon, a wealthy and overzealous Athenian philanthropist, patron of all the arts, tireless host of lavish banquets for his alleged friends, and generous opener of his purse to all sorts of claimants. The result? He is bankrupted, and humiliatingly refused loans by he very beneficiaries of his former munificence.
He throws a mock banquet at which the greedy ingrates are served water and stones, and chased away. He himself retires to a deserted cave, a self-proclaimed misanthrope feeding on roots. His loyal steward, Flavius, would serve him and help out still, but Timon rejects even him. His young friend Alcibiades, a victorious general similarly scorned by the Athenians, is encouraged by him to wreak vengeance on the city, whose emissaries, having discovered that Timon has dug up a buried hoard of gold, come to the cave to curry renewed favor. He mocks them—even down to his epitaph, revealed upon his rather unexplained death. (Could roots not have been nourishing enough?) He is posthumously praised by Alcibiades, who will conquer Athens, but spare all but Timon’s betrayers.
The chief blemishes of the play are two underdeveloped characters: Alcibiades, and the cynical philosopher Apemanthus, who crassly ridicules both Timon’s misplaced generosity and the cupidity of his supposed friends. More prescient in his misanthropy than his friend Timon, Apemanthus is, however, also excessively crude. Neither he nor Alcibiades is sufficiently rounded.
The LAB production has a major strength and a major weakness. The strength is the Timon of Richard Thomas, a consummate actor who has everything: exquisite control in modulating his performance, extremely appealing looks and personality, and exemplarily clear elocution with winning tonal coloring. The weakness is in the rest of the cast, their ranks perhaps excessively broadened (see above) or even too rank, as in the case of the Alcibiades of Reg E. Cathey, who not only fails to create a credible character, but also vainly struggles with speaking verse. I could have also done without the pornographic video, and had problems with Katherine Roth’s costuming, not because it was modern, but because it was too indiscriminate.
Even so, Barry Edelstein’s direction is fluid and efficient, and Thomas’s performance is worth much more than the coffer of gold coins he digs up, proving that riches in the wilderness—or even in amoral Athens—are of minimal value.
The Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street
Through March 6
John Simon has written for over 50 years on theatre, film, literature, music and fine arts for the Hudson Review, New Leader, New Criterion, National Review, New York Magazine, Opera News, Weekly Standard, Broadway.com andBloomberg News. He reviews books for the New York Times Book Review andWashington Post. He has written profiles for Vogue, Town and Country, Departures and Connoisseur and produced 17 books of collected writings. Mr. Simon holds a PhD from Harvard University in Comparative Literature and has taught at MIT, Harvard University, Bard College and Marymount Manhattan College. To learn more, visit the JohnSimon-Uncensored.com website.