It was a brave man who first et an oyster, Jonathan Swift once wrote. Maybe so, but not nearly as brave as someone who seeks to stage Timon of Athens, which could otherwise be known as “Shakespeare with Writer’s Block.” When ranking Shakespeare’s plays, most people agree that Timon is the rankest, but director Robert Richmond and the gang at Folger Shakespeare Theatre have gotten every last drop of good out of it. Though Timon is a journey without a destination, Folger makes sure that it is at least a thrilling ride.
Here is Timon in a nutshell: Timon (Ian Merrill Peakes) is a man of wealth, who enjoys nothing more than giving it away to the sycophants who surround him. He is a consummate host; a philanthropist (at least to his friends); a patron of the arts and the modest, grateful recipient of the extravagant praise which comes from such generosity. For this the cynical philosopher Apemantus (an excellent Eric Hissom) berates him relentlessly, but it is of no moment to Timon. The only problem is — as his faithful, bewildered servant Flavius (Antoinette Robinson) points out to us – that he’s out of money. His property is all liened up and ready for foreclosure. And soon his creditors are at the door.
No problemo, says Timon; his treasure is his friends. He instructs Flavius and his other servants to go to them and borrow money; since he has been so generous to them, he assures her; they will certainly be generous to him in return (spoiler alert if you are under five years of age: it doesn’t work.) When they return empty-handed the creditors set upon Timon in earnest, and the erstwhile Benefactor of Athens is driven from his home and his City.
Alone in a cave in the forest, Timon now rails against mankind (the play is subtitled “The Man-Hater”) and in particular against the City of Athens. He goes so far as to give some of the gold Flavius had squirrelled away to Alcibiades (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh), a soldier with his own grudge against Athens and who means to attack and destroy the City. Apemantus has now become an admirer of Timon, but it no longer matters to Timon, who hates everybody. Athens pleads for him to come back and support it against Alcibaides, but Timon declines. Then Timon dies. The end.
So how do Richmond and Folger rescue this play, whose insight seems to be that if you give away all your money you won’t have it any more? First, by putting it in modern dress, which lowers our expectations — if not for the play, then for the characters. We associate wisdom with the ancient Greeks, so that fools in robes are jarring, and we at least expect wit from characters who set forth on the stage in Renaissance garb. But we are not surprised to see dullards, flatterers, and losers in contemporary suit, tie, and pant-suit, as we see that all the time. When we see Timon grinning and being made stupid by flattery, we think of — well, you know who we think of.
Secondly, they use the extraordinary set, which Tony Cisek designed. This stage, all ebony and glass, sweats excessive wealth; and when the guests arrive, their names and security clearances appear above them. We also see money (here depicted as diamond-shaped pieces of flat grey metal with circles of gold in the middle) projected in a band across the top of the set; they look organic, like the stingrays that swim in the Baltimore Aquarium’s large pond. It is clearly the home of someone who expects to own the future as well as the present.
Thirdly, they make inspired casting choices (Theresa Wood did the casting; Daryl Eisenberg, CSA did the casting in New York), and in particular Peakes as Timon and Ebrahimzadeh as Alcibaides. Peakes is a superb actor capable of playing a wide range of characters, but he is particularly apt with dunderheads who have found themselves in a position of authority. He was superb as the Prime Minister in Shakespeare Theatre Company’s King Charles III, and Timon is the same kind of character. Peakes doesn’t patronize Timon, which would have been fatal, but he does present a man who wears his wealth and reputation for generosity uneasily, as though he is uncertain how he got here, and when it is taken away from him, he is like a child who has been denied a promised ice cream cone. He is full of the sort of ticks we might expect from someone to whom the world is a mystery; for example, he conspicuously avoids the middle of a certain step as he goes up and down the stairs. Is he superstitious? Who knows?
As for Ebrahimzadeh, he has, for as long as I’ve watched him (nearly ten years, now), been a subject-matter expert in presenting characters whose pleasant facades mask a violent impulse. He outdoes himself as Alcibaides, though. We see him first at Timon’s party — a genuine war hero, whose calm and dignity is in marked contrast to the behavior of the other partygoers. He next appears before the Senate of Athens, making an eloquent and gracious plea for the life of a friend, who has committed manslaughter. When an Athenian Senator (Kathryn Tkel, doing good work in this and as a merchant) not only orders the execution of Alcibaides’ friend but banishes Alcibaides himself from Athens, we can see the transformation come over his face. We suddenly realize that this is a man who kills other people for a living, and is now prepared to do it on principle. That Ebrahimzadeh can do this with little help from the text shows what a fine economical actor he is, and how suited to this role.
Timon of Athens
closes June 11, 2017
Details and tickets
But the fourth thing that Richmond has done — and the thing which brings it home to us, over four hundred years after Shakespeare wrote it — is that he makes it clear that Timon has no fun, not for a single instant of his time before us. At his party, Timon distractedly acknowledges the phony praise directed at him. A painter (Andhy Mendez) shows Timon a (wildly inappropriate) portrait he made of him; Timon nods, smiles, gulps and looks away. A jeweler (Sean Fri) presents him with a magnificent ring, which Timon dutifully buys; later, for no discernable reason, he gives it to a merchant (Tkel). Most tellingly, when some comely dancers (Aliyah Caldwell and Amanda Forstrom; later their characters will join Alcibaides’ rebellion, and John Floyd) join the party, Timon stands on the outskirts, nervously watching the revelers. At a bacchanal, Timon would be the one drinking iced tea; at an orgy, Timon would be the one emptying the ashtrays. It is clear that Timon is no true philanthropist — his gifts go to other well-off people — and not a man who spends hard in order to party hard. He is spending his money in the vain attempt to get people to love him, which is to say, he is a sick man.
But that’s really the dilemma of the present age, isn’t it? Is there really any point to a fourth home? Or a suit which costs more than a thousand dollars? Or a bottle of wine which costs more than two hundred? After a certain point, the accumulation and spending of wealth ceases to be pleasurable in itself and becomes a way of talking about how rich you are. (A point made brilliantly by last year’s Fringe show Ain’t That Rich, by the way). Another way to put this is: after a certain point, wealth becomes an illness.
So — to paraphrase the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza — Robert Richmond, for taking Shakespeare’s worst play, breathing life into it and making it relevant, you had the best week in Washington. Congratulations.
Timon of Athens, by William Shakespeare (possibly with Thomas Middleton), directed by Robert Richmond. Featuring Louis Butelli, Aliyah Caldwell, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, John Floyd, Amanda Forstrom, Sean Fri, Eric Hissom, Andhy Mendez, Ian Merrill Peakes, Antoinette Robinson, Michael Dix Thomas, and Kathryn Tkel . Scenic design: Tony Cisek . Costume design: Mariah Hale . Lighting design: Andrew F. Griffin . Sound design: Matt Otto . Projection design: Francesca Talenti . Dramaturg: Michele Osherow . New York casting: Daryl Eisenberg, CSA . Folger casting: Teresa Wood . Stage Manager: Diane Healy, assisted by Megan Bell . Produced by Folger Theatre . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.