While there is no record of Timon of Athens' ever having been produced during Shakespeare's lifetime (it is never, if ever, read in college classes, let alone by high school students), I'll bet that if the Globe Theatre had mounted the splendid, inspired, streamlined production now onstage at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, the play would have been nominated for a Lizzie Award as the Best Play of 1600! (I have guessed at the date it was written because most scholars place it just before the Bard wrote the late romances.)
The sign at the Drew University campus entrance gives Timon the subtitle, "A Dark Vaudeville," and the production directed by Brian Crowe is all that and more. The gaudy, carnival-like atmosphere resembles that of Kurt Weill's Threepenny Opera or the horror shows put on at Paris' Theatre of the Grand Guignol, with the ghoulish makeup designed by Jaclyn M. Hunt and the hurdy-gurdy organ music composed by Peter Fleming heightening the feeling. (Check out the video at the bottom of this post.)
The unreality is further conveyed by the actors who pose and move like mechanical toys at the beginning and then from time to time during the plot; we can hear a key turning to wind them up and then the ticking of the spring as it loses tension—all from the masterful hand of sound designer Karin Graybash. Add to this a female carnival barker strutting around setting things in motion, what appear to be gas footlights at the front of the stage, and you have a recipe for a mordant, biting assessment of humankind and the effect of money on the moral fabric of human beings in particular and society in general.
The plot as written by Shakespeare is episodic and rather sprawling, so Crowe has trimmed, condensed and tightened up the running time to 90 minutes. Set in Athens, a city "not for the faint of heart or the squeamish of spirit,” where “power reigns and money is power,” the play revolves around Timon, a “good and honest man” who doles out gold coins from his hat to those who flatter him. Timon is generous to his friends, freeing one from debtor's prison by paying off his debts and supporting him thereafter, giving a grouchy father a dowry so his daughter can marry one of Timon's servants. The importance of money is underscored by the senators chanting "money, money, money" and the large cast calling out "ka-ching" every time someone receives a cash handout. The only person who thinks something is rotten in Athens is Apemantus, a dour, nasty, cripple who makes snide comments about his friend Timon and his practice of buying friends.
Timon's good fortune does not last, however. It comes to light that he has been borrowing money to pay these hangers-on; when the debts come due, the lenders demand their money, and no one steps forward to help their former benefactor (left). Faced with rejection, he turns into a misanthropos, tearing his hair, taking off his clothes and repairing to a cave where, amidst a wasteland, he howls his disgust with humankind, who have so cruelly disappointed him. When the general Alcibiades readies an attack on an Athens that has scorned him, three Senators come to Timon for help, which he says he will give if just one of the men will hang himself then and there. Of course, no one offers himself, so Timon crawls into his cave and dies, leaving Alcibiades to read his epitaph to the Athenian citizens.
The cast for this production is huge, even though some actors double up on minor roles. Greg Jackson, familiar to STNJ audiences for his work in comedies, assumes the dramatic role of Timon assuredly and easily. His demeanor when he's flush with money is a bit dopey and naive, but once he's broke, he rages and howls (much like Lear in the wilderness) as a man driven mad with disenchantment might. As Flavius, Timon's steward (and the bearer of bad monetary tidings), John Seidman is the epitome of loyalty and steadfastness. Bruce Comer (right) is superb as the cynical philosopher Apemantus, the only man who does not take money from Timon. Limping around with a crutch, his face marked with a perpetual sneer, he's twisted physically as well as mentally. Brent Harris is all spit and polish as Alcibiades, a captain in the Athenian army who, when maltreated by the senators, vows to seek revenge on his hometown. Of the numerous wealthy citizens of Athens, Ames Adamson and Scott Whitehurst (below right) stand out; of the artisans, Geoffrey Owens as Poet and Eric Hoffmann as Painter are especially obsequious and fawning. And telling us that "this is the world's soul," Jessica Ires Morris (left) as the Carnival Barker keeps a tight rein (and whip) on the mayhem wreaked by the rest of the characters.
Production values match the dazzling performances. Pamela A. Prior's costumes are garish and tawdry as befits the carnival atmosphere; I especially liked the apron made of credit documents worn by Timon when he invites his creditors to dine on a feast of stones. Andrew Hungerford's lighting design reinforces the chaotic mood. The set, much simpler than that created for The Misanthrope, uses lots of scraps of paper pasted willy-nilly onto two rolling screens and the back wall, which when lit green resembles a forest and when reddish, the Athens city walls. Crumpled newspaper litters the stage in the wilderness scenes to signify the confusion outside the city gates.
That STNJ was performing Timon of Athens this season made me wonder why they had chosen a play rarely read or performed. But from the minute I walked into the F. M. Kirby Shakespearean Theatre until the final moments of the play, my ignorance dissipated. Here we are, 410 years since Shakespeare wrote this play, talking about nothing except finances, budgets, debt ceilings, credit default, and the power of money to change the world and men's fortunes (and friendships). Thank you to Brian Crowe and STNJ for bringing us this wonderful theatrical experience. Perhaps we won't feel we've gone to Hell in a hand basket about the current financial crisis; we will realize that "the more things change, the more they stay the same." Not very comforting, but theater is supposed to unsettle the audience and make them think. Bravo!
Timon of Athens will be performed Tuesdays through Sundays through July 24 at the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theater, 36 Madison Avenue, in Madison, on the campus of Drew University. Call the box office 973.408.5600 or visit www.ShakespeareNJ.org for performance times and ticket prices.
Photos: ©Gerry Goodstein