They flatter and bow, they laugh, they swear their earnest friendship. They take his money (well, he DID offer) and when he comes to them for help, they disappear. Stop the presses. A fool and his money have been parted.
This play, which doesn’t even have a production history from Shakespeare’s day, sparks plenty of controversy. Did Shakespeare write it alone or co-write it with Thomas Middleton? Is it unfinished or just unpolished? Some say it contains “the central essence of tragic drama” and others say it doesn’t even have a real plot. I say see it before you buy your next lottery ticket.
The story of “Timon of Athens” is a story as old as time, but under Robert Richmond’s stunning direction, it reappears in the modern age of cell phones, electronic security, and retinal scanners. And why not? We’re so fond of talking about “greed” these days.
This seldom produced problem/tragedy play closes the 25th anniversary season at Folger and ends it on a high note. While Timon does not attain the grandeur of King Lear, Helen Hayes Award winner Ian Merrill Peakes in the title role is electrifying. Precise as a diamond cutter, he peels back the layers of Timon from foolish philanthropist to morbid misanthrope with all the graduated shadings in between.
In a clumsier handling, it would be easy to dismiss him as a simple ninny, a mega-million winner type who mistakes money for love and flattery for friendship and finds himself handsomely hoist by his own petard. And all of that is true, for Timon will listen to no one until it’s too late. But he’s not so easy to dismiss.
His faithful steward, Flavius – played by Antoinette Robinson, injects a desperately needed note of caution. Intelligent, reserved, quietly alarmed, Phrynia warns him that the partying and gifts are being paid for with money borrowed against his land.
And Apemantus (Eric Hissom), a philosopher whose cynicism, one suspects, is based on many years’ weary encampment in the gray areas of human behavior, is never disappointed because he wants nothing. Functioning as a one-man Greek chorus, he lounges in treetops and tells Timon frankly that he is a fool surrounded by flatterers – and Timon proves it by laughing it off.
“I could deal kingdoms to my friends, and ne’er be weary…” he proclaims. And naturally he is up to his neck in friends anxious to have kingdoms dealt to them. The play never shows us how he acquired his fortune, although it’s a safe bet that he didn’t earn it. Nor does it endow him with a family or clues to the psychological neediness that compels him to buy his friends and equate wealth with the power to bind men to himself. That is for the actor to illuminate.
In his downfall with creditors at the door and empty space where his ‘friends’ used to be, Timon is equally extreme. It is not just the full weight of their ingratitude, but the overdue recognition of his own naïve profligacy that has brought him to this pass. As his generosity was off the charts, so is his new-found loathing of humankind. And then comes revenge.
The compact Folger stage opens onto a world with no borders, for humanity undefined by nations is on display. Tony Cisek’s streamlined set and Andrew Griffin’s lighting design create a world familiar to us now – fast-moving electronic boards, even if the symbols are meaningless; data-gathering abstract lighted boxes; and a dark geometry of lines, stairway, and elevator through which people disappear as quickly as they come.
Matt Otto’s otherworldly sound design seems from a futuristic dream – or nightmare – that subtly enhances the progression of the story without overwhelming it. Costuming by Mariah Hale accentuates contrast. Timon’s silk-suited boardroom look, clean lines and sure tailoring against the rags of his self-banishment; his associates, respectable and well-heeled, devolve into their true hedonism in a wild party worthy of Gomorrah.
With half of the cast playing multiple roles, pacing is swift. And the sudden reversed-reversal of Timon’s fortunes? A necessary bit of deus ex machina. Where once gold was his vehicle for ingratiating the Athenians to him, now it is payment for putting them to the torch.
Being the protagonist of a tragedy confers stature, but it is not the stature of a Macbeth or an Othello. His is not the flaw of a larger-than-life character, but the all-too-human flaw of a dupe, and his anger at the world may well be the outward manifestation of his own self-loathing. Nevertheless, Richmond’s vision is so relevant and Peakes’ interpretation so visceral that Timon appeals on the level of an Everyman brought to ruin by his own heart.
Maggie Lawrence is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association. She is a retired English and drama teacher.
WANT TO GO?
What: “Timon of Athens”
Where: Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 E. Capitol St. SE, Washington, D.C.
Call: (202) 544-7077 or visit www.folger.edu/theatre
Playing through June 11