Monday, January 20, 2020

148 (2019-2020): Review: TIMON OF ATHENS (seen January 19, 2020)

“Can’t Buy Her Love”

There are plenty of reasons for why Timon of Athens or, as originally titled, The Life of Tymon of Athens, is infrequently performed, not least of them being that it’s not entirely by William Shakespeare. Written between 1605 and 1608, it’s the result of a collaboration with Thomas Middleton.

Moreover, this bleak tragedy (with dabs of humor) about excessive generosity, parasitism, selfishness, lack of gratitude, and, ultimately, misanthropy, also has various inconsistencies, including a stylistic disconnect between its first half, gloriously glittering, and its second, dark, dank, and dreary.  
Kathryn Hunter. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Now revived at Brooklyn’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center, home to Theatre for a New Audience (TFNA), the two-and-a-half-hour production—like so many of the postwar years—struggles to relate the play’s themes of money, greed, overspending, lavish lifestyles, and the like to the contemporary world by dressing the actors in stylized versions of modern dress.
Zachary Fine as the Painter. Photo: Henry Grossman.
Yonatan Gebeyehu as Poet. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Julian Ogilvie as Jeweller. Photo: Henry Grossman.
Most egregiously, apart from multiple other questionable directorial diversions, director Simon Godwin’s production—originally produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2018 at Stratford-upon Avon—casts a woman, not only in the title role, but in that of Alcibiades, a highly reputed Athenian soldier, here converted to a rebellious activist. For all the interesting sidelights brought to mind by making Timon female, as Jonathan Kalb notes in his fascinating discussion on the TFNA website, it comes off as little more than yet another gimmick, and fails to save the play from its inherent flaws.
Arnie Burton. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Timon of Athens—as per this gender-alternative version—is about how the wealthy Athenian, Lady Timon (Kathryn Hunter), takes great pleasure in offering feasts to those she knows, as if giving them expensive gifts, like jewels and horses, and even yanking them from debt will buy their friendship. Aside from the wittily cynical Apemantus (Arnie Burton), who castigates Timon for his foolish trust in selfish people, the others are archetypal freeloaders, caring only for her swag, not her affection. Got a painting to sell, jewels to peddle, or poetry to purvey? Timon’s your touch.
Liam Craig as Demetrius. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
She has a true friend only in Flavius (John Rothman), her steward, whose wise advice to desist she chooses to ignore. 
Shirine Babb as Lucia. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
The day comes, though, when the coffers run dry, she can’t repay a debt, and her fair-weather friends reject her when she seeks their help. Angry at such betrayals, she offers a final feast at which she serves the parasites stones and water, converted by Godwin into bowls of blood so Timon can splash it all over everyone, not least herself. (They all wear white to emphasize the red.) There’s an unintended irony in such a distracting choice since it suggests that no matter how poor you are you can still squeeze blood from stones.
Kathryn Hunter. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
In the second half, Timon is a bitter, impoverished, Lear-like hermit in rags, living in a cave (here a Beckettian plain beneath a blasted tree). Abandoning philanthropy for misanthropy, she rails at mankind. While digging for roots to eat, she comes across, of all things, the root of all evil, a pot of gold. (In Godwin’s staging, the hole from which she shovels dirt is a rectangle cut into the wooden stage floor, making it look like she’s digging her own grave. The grave awaiting her, though, is offstage.)
Company of Timon of Athens. Photo: Henry Grossman.
Soon, her forest retreat is interrupted by Apemantus, whose acrimony Timon now shares, and Alcibiades (Elia Monte-Brown)—banished by the Senate—and her rebellious followers, aiming to attack Athens. They carry posters saying things like “Give the Dispossessed Their Place” and “No Roof, No Comfort,” but automatic rifles are equally at hand. The prostitutes who normally accompany Alcibiades, and with whom Timon banters about spreading VD in Athens, have no place in a production with a female Timon and so are gone with the wind.
Company of Timon of Athens. Photo: Henry Grossman.
To support Alcibiades’ cause—revised from the original’s political to a social agenda—Timon donates gold to her, thereafter turning down the offered help of Flavius when he arrives. Alcibiades brings Athens to its knees and Timon, in staging that transforms her, oddly, into Christ, dies in a Pieta-like pose as the others gather in tableau. Why Christ for someone who spreads her wealth not among the poor but among the already well off? Well, yes, there are the three thieves who renounce their thievery, but still . . .
Daniel Pearce, Liam Craig, Dave Quay as the thieves. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Aside from the unusual casting—which is increasingly less unusual these gender-conscious days—this is not a particularly engrossing production. The British Hunter apart, the well-spoken company deliver its words in standard American accents, but their performances are neither better nor worse than those you’ll find in most front-rank American productions.
Elia Monte-Brown. Photo: Henry Grossman.
Hunter, as noted, plays Timon, not by cross-dressing—as with so many female performances of, let’s say, Hamlet—but as a woman. Regardless of the aptness of this choice, one might also ponder what makes this particular 63-year-old actress, diminutive, husky-voiced, and known for her kinetic idiosyncrasies (as per such roles as Puck, Richard III, and Kafka’s monkey), best for the role. She’s unquestionably charismatic and perceptive, but hers is a unique physicality that doesn’t necessarily make her suitable for every part (think Peter Dinklage’s recent Cyrano). And Godwin, almost as if to emphasize her idiosyncrasy, even has her peeing in a bucket, wiping herself, and offering the contents to someone else to drink (which he does!).
Company of Timon of Athens. Photo: Henry Grossman.
Soutra Gilmour’s bare-bones set sits on a thrust occupying much of the theatre’s orchestra and resembling a strip of bark or copper that rides skyward on a curve where a conventional stage would be. Under Donald Holder’s expert lighting it takes on a wide variety of beautiful colorations. Gilmour’s stylized modern costumes use lots of shiny fabric for the banquet, shifting later to palettes of white and black. A Greek-accented pop vibe marks Michael Bruce’s original score which, as common in such present-day stagings, gets sung at several points by a sultry diva (Kristen Misthopoulous) with a handheld mic.
Kathryn Hunter. Photo: Henry Grossman.
Timon of Athens has some wonderful speeches and ideas that continue to have relevance but it remains a mediocre play. Godwin and Emily Burns’s editorial tinkering, which interpolates some outside material (with infusions by Godwin and Burns themselves), does little to elevate it. Even the actors’ frequent direct contact with those seated near the stage, who risk getting spritzed with seltzer or spotted with blood, seems little more than gratuitous playing to the crowd. 

Were the Bard’s name not attached to it, I doubt that Timon of Athens would be on many people’s wish list.  
Company of Timon of Athens. Photo: Henry Grossman.
Polonsky Shakespeare Center
45 Ashland Place, Brooklyn, NY
Through February 9