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Timon of Athens (Theatre for a New Audience)

Fascinating updating reinvention of a rarely performed Shakespeare tragedy owes a good deal to director Simon Godwin and actress Kathryn Hunter in the title role.

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Kathryn Hunter (aloft) and the Cast of Shakespeare and Middleton’s “Timon of Athens” at Theatre for a New Audience (Photo credit: Henry Grossman)

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Although Timon of Athens, now believed to be a collaboration between William Shakespeare and Thomas Middleton is considered a minor play, you would never guess it from Simon Godwin’s production at Theatre for a New Audience, a co-production with Shakespeare Theatre Company of Washington, D.C., in association with the United Kingdom’s Royal Shakespeare Company.

On paper the concept should not work: scenes and characters have been cut, a Shakespeare sonnet has been added set to music, as well as a Greek song, and four characters originally written for men are played by women. Nevertheless, the streamlining of this modern dress production in the edition prepared by Emily Burns and Godwin makes this tragedy very accessible and eliminating subplots makes the play quite linear. The addition of women gives the play an almost contemporary feeling. The scenic and costume design by Soutra Gilmour for the first half of the play is simply dazzling, while the second half has its own visual display.

As Lady Timon (originally written for a man), Olivier Award winner Kathryn Hunter in her seventh appearance at TFANA is not only convincing but holds the entire production together with her physical and passionate performance. Like the play, her performance is in two parts: the generous hostess of the first half, and the misanthropic hermit of the second. Reducing the cast to 14 from 37 named roles makes it a good deal easier to follow this unfamiliar play. For the record, the only time the play has appeared on Broadway in Tony Randall’s 1993 National Actors Theatre production starring Brian Bedford and Michael Cumpsty, it made use of 36 actors.

The Cast of Shakespeare and Middleton’s “Timon of Athens” at Theatre for a New Audience (Photo credit: Henry Grossman)

Like all Shakespearean tragedies, the protagonist has a fatal flaw or weakness: Lady Timon’s is intemperateness or unrestrained extravagance and she is destined to come to grief. The first of the play’s two dinner parties, a sumptuous display of gold and silver, opens the play as she wines her so-called friends as an overgenerous hostess. When she discovers that Ventidius is in debtor’s prison, she sends money to bail him out. When Sempronious, a rich Athenian, objects to Timons’ servant Lucilius wooing his daughter, Timon sets him up with enough of a fortune to be an eligible suitor. Not among the poet, painter and jeweller who flatter Timon with false statements of adulation, the cynical and caustic philosopher Apemantus warns her about false friends and extravagant flattery, but to no avail. All the guests are sent home with gold jewelry as presents.

Unfortunately, as Timon’s steward Flavius has been telling her, she is bankrupt. When she sends to her false friends to obtain loans, she is turned down by them all. Timon gives a second dinner party and invites the same false friends only to serve them nothing but blood as she chases them out of her mansion which she is about to lose. In reaction to her poor treatment by those who had professed friendship, Timon curses humanity and retires to live in the woods as a hermit, becoming a total misanthrope.

Discovering a treasure buried in the ground, Timon is again beset by sycophants, thieves and former friends, but sends them away. When rebel leader Alcibiades arrives to request funding for a war on Athens in the name of the dispossessed Timon gives her funds in order to teach the greedy Athenians a lesson. When her loyal steward Flavius and the philosopher Apemantus arrive to commiserate with her, she finds she has two real friends in all the world. When the rebellion threatens to overrun Athens, Senators appeal to her for help but she tells them to end their woes by hanging themselves. When Alcibiades and the rebels surround them, she offers to rule peacefully if Athens will forgive the rebels and treat them justly from now on. However, it is all too late for Timon.

Kathryn Hunter surrounded by the Cast of Shakespeare and Middleton’s “Timon of Athens” at Theatre for a New Audience (Photo credit: Henry Grossman)

In reducing the cast list, Godwin has grouped the characters in threes and uses a different style for each which works remarkably well. Senators Lucia (Shirine Babb), Sempronius (Daniel Pearce) and Lucullus (Dave Quay) are smooth, elegant flatterers who are avaricious at heart. Timon’s loyal servants Lucilius (Adam Langdon) and Faminia (Helen Cespedes) are led by the stalwart steward Flavius (John Rothman). Creative artists the poet (Yonatan Gebeyehu), the painter (Zachary Fine) and the Jeweler (Julia Ogilvie) are silver tongued sycophants.

As the rebel leader Alcibiades, Elia Monte-Brown is characterized as a person of integrity and principles. Arnie Burton as the cynical philosopher Apemantus has a ball spewing his wrath and execration. Singer Kristen Misthopoulos backed by a combo of three musicians entertains with songs set to original Greek style music by Michael Bruce at Timon’s banquets. Gilmour’s haut couture in gold, gold and white, and gold and black for the first banquet is simply eye-filling, while she cleverly puts the same actors in white for the second banquet where they are pelted with blood. Like the play which splits into two parts, Donald Holder’s lighting design is very different for the Athenian half of the play and the scenes in the woods.

With Kathryn Hunter leading a fine cast, this Timon of Athens is very entertaining both in its visual spectacle and high style. The play may not be up to Shakespeare’s  usual standard of poetry and psychology, but director Simon Godwin has shown how to make it work for a modern audience. Kudos to all involved in this revelatory production.

Timon of Athens (through February 9, 2020)

Theatre for a New Audience and Shakespeare Theatre Company, in association with The Royal Shakespeare Company

Samuel H. Scripps Mainstage at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, 262 Ashland Place, in Brooklyn

For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.tfana.org

Running time: two hours and 25 minutes with one intermission

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Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief
About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (700 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for TheaterScene.net in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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