By Kyle Osborne Photos By Teresa Wood
If Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream are Shakespeare’s Top 40 Hits, then Timon of Athens is a deep cut on a rare bootleg album. Rarely performed and never mentioned alongside the greats, Shakespeare’s tragedy has been called everything from unpolished to unfinished over the centuries. But all of that was before director Robert Richmond dropped the needle on this unfairly overlooked gem. The knowledgeable veteran has crafted a compelling and contemporary entertainment that’s bound to be fondly remembered for many years to come. This modern and accessible take, with a nod to technology and consumer electronics substituting for a more engaged lifestyle, may particularly resonate with Millennials and Gen Xers.
The story itself is straightforward and universal in its themes: Timon (Ian Merrill Peakes) is the toast of the town. With his super expensive suit, cut to the nines, and his phat pad, this wealthy man has everything that money can buy. Sycophantic “friends” come to his party to kiss his ass and get, in return, riches and proximity. Timon is literally buying his friends with his plentiful cash. Like, really overdoing the whole generosity thing.
Big mistake. Huge. Even rich people run out of money, right? The two part structure essentially divides between Timon’s days of massive wealth and the fake friends who come with it in Act One–and a far different second act, in which Timon has lost everything. Already a complicated soul (there are big hints that our boy is super OCD and superstitious) Timon’s unexpected loss of fortune turns him into a bitter, man-hating loon. The friends are long gone. Loans? No can do. He is alone and destitute, at least for a time—a plot twist that involves found gold will go unmentioned by me, you can read the entire synopsis, if you don’t mind spoilers Wikipedia’s Long Form Synopsis This may just be the ultimate riches to rags story.
Mr. Simon’s direction keeps things moving along at a good pace. There’s a lot of (organic) movement by the actors who bring Tony Cisek’s gorgeous chrome and glass set to life. Perhaps the best use of space I’ve ever seen at Folger, the set is part Star Trek and part European disco. It absolutely feels like a cosmopolitan party place in the first act and a desolate, grim landscape in the second. Costume Designer Mariah Hale has dressed the cast in current to not-to-distant-future threads—like the contemporary setting, the costumes give subtle cues that the text, perhaps, could not.
Not to bury the lead, but the main reason you’ll be locked into the proceedings is the performance of Ian Merrill Peakes. An emotional fruit salad is required and Mr. Peakes nimbly moves along a path that must surely be fraught with peril in the hands of a lesser talent. His descent into madness is about as real as one could hope to get. I know that there has been disagreement about whether Timon is a “good guy” or not. He is certainly pitiable, and because he has been made multi-dimensional here, it’s hard not to identify with him. Who doesn’t want friends? Who hasn’t cursed the fickle gods? Who hasn’t felt the urge for vengeance?
Eric Hissom as Apemantus, is delightful. Mr. Hissom’s uncanny ability to pull the laughs out of the lines has made him a stand out in his performances at Folger. A second act volley between Apemantus and Timon is like watching two world class tennis pros going at it—enjoying the back and forth.
Another stand out is Antoinette Robinson as Flavius. She is Timon’s right hand, his faithful assistant who may just be his only true friend. Or maybe she’s just great at her job, holding a Lucite tablet and keeping the show running smoothly, at least for a time.
The cast are multi-cultural and what a brilliant choice to have them speaking English with varying accents: Spanish, Russian, and even a Deep Southern drawl. The actors’ heads are often buried in their iPhones as they saunter across the stage, which is exactly what audience members were doing as soon as the play concluded—whipping out their phones to check emails and texts, they unwittingly confirmed some points made by The Bard and realized by Mr. Richmond. Affirmation is addictive, even in its most superficial form, but it disappears into the ether before you know it, and then what have you got?
Timon of Athens continues at Folger Shakespeare Theatre through June 11th. Find much more information at http://www.folger.edu/events/timon-of-athens