Timon of Athens
Burnishing a Flawed Play into a Masterpiece
American Shakespeare Center, Blackfriars Playhouse, Staunton, Va.
Saturday, February 8, 2014, D–6&7 (front middle stalls)
Actors' Renaissance Season
For more than 25 years I have lived with a most singular recollection. At the end of the first half of Les Miserables in the original London production, as the ensemble concluded "One Day More," the audience gave a standing ovation. At the interval! I've never seen such a phenomenon before or since, but I came closest this weekend, watching, of all things, Timon of Athens at the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Va. René Thornton Jr. as Timon concludes the first half with his curse of Athens.
René Thornton Jr. as Timon of Athens at the Blackfriars Playhouse. Photo by Pat Jarrett, American Shakespeare Center.
"Timon will to the woods, where he shall find th'unkindest beast more kinder than mankind," he says. Then he prays that the gods "confound th'Athenians both within and out that wall," and Thornton turns to include us, the audience, as those Athenians outside that wall. "And grant, as Timon grows, his hate may grow to the whole race of mankind, high and low! Amen," he says, punctuating this prayer by giving us a pair of middle-finger salutes. He strides off stage, a clanging bell signals the start of intermission, and the audience applauds (as usual), continues applauding (more than usual), and keeps on applauding for what seems a minute (most unusual).
As delivered by Thornton, the speech is mesmerizing and stomach-churning, smart and smarting, appealing and appalling. We are loving him in this moment even though we know the character is loathing us. Acting doesn't get much better than that.
And then it does. In the second half.
There are three reasons to see this American Shakespeare Center production of William Shakespeare's Timon of Athens: Because you'll so rarely get to see this flawed play; because, rarer still, you'll see this play done so well; and because of the rarified air you'll be breathing as you experience Thornton's portrayal of the "Poor honest lord, brought low by his own heart, undone by goodness," who turns vicious misanthrope when his city and friends betray him. After the performance of Thornton and his ASC fellows, you might walk out of the Blackfriars Playhouse thinking you have just seen Shakespeare at his best, Hamlet and King Lear rolled into one with a bit of Much Ado About Nothing on the fringe.
Pause. I have not been drinking crazy juice or dropping some chemical combo. This is Timon of Athens I am writing about here, a play that legitimately sparked an authorship debate back in the 18th and 19th centuries when Bardoloters refused to believe that Shakespeare could have written such crap (the Baconians, Marlovians, and Oxfordians don't seem to want to claim their guys wrote it, either). Scholars have determined that Shakespeare wrote the play in collaboration with Thomas Middleton, but to me it reads like a first draft: a play with some good ideas, one or two brilliant passages, and the foundations for some interesting characters, but also dangling plot lines, rambling passages full of redundancies, and characters yet to be fully formed or even clearly identified, including a traditional fool who comes out of nowhere and disappears just as quickly. Shakespeare seems to have set it aside and turned to King Lear and Antony and Cleopatra instead (both of which have thematic and source connections with Timon), and there's no record the play was ever performed in his lifetime. But, it ended up in the First Folio.
The play has been given more airing in the past few years because of its resonance in a time of paper-wealthy men overextending themselves and creating bank crises and economic turmoil for the rest of us. Still, frankly, the primary reason to produce (and see) Timon of Athens is to complete the Shakespeare canon, and that is exactly what the American Shakespeare Center has accomplished with this staging—notably, it was the last of Shakespeare's recognized works the company mounted, preceding it with the Shakespeare–John Fletcher collaborations of Henry VIII and Two Noble Kinsmen last year.
And yet, this Timon come lastly turns out to be one of the company's best outings. It joins the repertoire of this year's Actors' Renaissance Season when the company of actors, each given only the scripts for their parts, stage the play themselves without a director, without a costume designer, and on the Blackfriars' bare stage, with only days of rehearsal. The idea is to replicate the production process of Shakespeare's own company, which is ironic if Shakespeare's own company never staged this play. Perhaps Shakespeare's own company wasn't as good as ASC's.
The pertinent skills for making this Timon such great theater come from several quarters. First is the "cut" of the play, or the edited script, this one done by erstwhile ASC actor Benjamin Curns. The play has been streamlined and not only given a logical progression but a sense of urgency, too. Gone are the redundancies and extraneous observing characters. Not gone, surprisingly, is the Fool's scene, in which the Fool (Sarah Fallon) and cynic Apemantus (Josh Innerst) team up to out-insult various Athenian lords. The Fool is still a bizarre and fleeting addition—he or she never shows up again—but the scene further evolves the role of Apemantus, which will come to significant fruition in the second half.
Another of the company's skills is its understanding of Shakespeare in performance and expertise with his (and Middleton's) verse. Timon is heavy lifting if you are not familiar with the play (and even if you are familiar with it), but the players spot you through with the clarity of their line readings, the simplicity of their staging, and the visual clues of their costumes, in which a cloak or stole denotes a servant or a senator.
Most pertinent is the acting talent, and though three individuals stand out, this production exemplifies the strength of ensemble acting when every individual actor invests so much attention to detail in their individual roles—even though most in the 12-member cast play three or four parts each: Abbi Hawk as a flattering lord and Cupid; Allison Glenzer as the Jeweler, a flattering lord, and one of Alcibiades's mistresses; Tracie Thomason as a servant, the Merchant, and one of Alcibiades's mistresses; Andrew Goldwasser as a flattering lord and creditor; Gregory Jon Phelps as a servant and a senator; John Harrell as a servant and flattering lord; and Fallon as the Painter, a senator, and the Fool; and all are the "various troupe members" who play "senators, creditors' servants, messengers, and thieves." Tim Sailer plays Timon's steward in a perpetual state of exasperated angst out of devotion for his lord, and Jonathan Holtzman is the general Alcibiades, stout and straightforward, but one who loves a good party.
Chris Johnston also plays multiple roles, but his turn as the Poet stands out in the affected way he speaks his lines as if every phrase was genius divined. He can barely contain his glee with his own self and the ideas he writes in his ever-present journal, and even the manner in which he leans against the wall seems self-centered with a smirk of certain superiority on his face. The Poet is just one of the many flatterers and is paired throughout the play with Fallon's Painter, but Johnston's Poet has turned flattery into high art as he ensures that all others feel indebted to his good opinion.
Timon of Athens' most interesting character is Apemantus, the cynic who rails at all things mankind to the point of desiring the extinction of humans and the return of earth to the beasts—as long as he's one of the beasts (a notion Timon turns into one of his most devastating insults). Even with Thornton's powerful performance of the play's title character, Innerst as Apemantus matches him verbal blow for verbal blow, literally in the second-half scene during which the two insult each other like children on the playground. Looking so much like Freddie Mercury with mustache, slicked-back hair, and fashionable tight t-shirt, black pants, smoking jacket, and a multipatterned scarf around his neck, Innerst's Apemantus loves playing the outcast and revels in his infamy. The thing is, he speaks the truth, both in asides to the audience and to Timon's face; but when Timon has become the bitterer cynic and fully-realized outcast, Apemantus shows his true colors in attempting to out-infamy him.
Without such expert playing of Apemantus, of the Poet and Painter, of the bewildered Alcibiades and his whores, of the Steward, of the senators, and of the thieves, Timon in the second half of the play would be a one-note whiner. This ensemble gives the actor playing Timon all the riches he needs, and Thornton triples the value with his own investment in the character.
As written, Timon is a two-dimensional character: one dimension is the over-benevolent, flattery-loving, co-dependent lord of the first half, and the other dimension is the cursing, sniping, snarling, manic misanthrope of the second half. Thornton massages out many more dimensions in his lines and most notably during an unspoken sequence. In the opening banquet when Cupid enters with a masque of Amazons, the women, who turn out to be prostitutes sent to Timon for his entertainment, start with belly dancing and soon have the whole company engaged in a bacchanal dance—except Timon. He backs up to the gold curtain at the back of the stage, watching the scene in an obvious expression of discomfort. We know it's not the expense of these women that bothers him, so it must be his own sense of morality and honor. This adds to Timon's tragic fall: He believes that benevolence is a moral imperative and that duty is to be requited. When his friends and city fail him, he turns to the opposite extreme. "O, the fierce wretchedness that glory brings us," the Steward says of him. Timon seeks the life of a hermit, but his discovery of gold not only galls him even more—so cynical has he become—it becomes a TMZ moment for him, and various Athenians come calling on him.
Apemantus (Josh Innerst) watches the the activity at Timon's banquet in the American Shakespeare Center production of Timon of Athens at the Blackfriars Playhouse where members of the audience sit on stage. Photo by Pat Jarrett, American Shakespeare Center.
Thornton then must find where to soften Timon's sharp edges in the second half. Again, he does so not in what he says but how he reacts when the senators implore him to return to Athens and offer him "Recompense more fruitful" and "such heaps and sums of love and wealth" from the city and his former friends. Thornton's Timon is touched: "You witch me in it, surprise me to the very brink of tears; Lend me a fool's heart and a woman's eyes and I'll beweep these comforts, worthy senators," he says, and Thornton says it with no hint of cynicism. Only then do the senators tell him that if he "take the captainship" against Alcibiades's invading army, "thou shalt be met with thanks." Politicians don't get it, do they? Timon certainly gets it and becomes even more cynical than ever, offering the people of Athens who are seeking comfort from him to come to the tree next to his cave and hang themselves.
Thornton works the Blackfriars space and its proximity to the audience (including those sitting on stage) to gather us in as empathetic cohorts even as he collectively and individually signals us out for his insults and curses. He also finds much humor in the part, especially his clever snarkiness that sometimes takes two or three lines to reach a killer punchline. As tragic as Timon's fall and as bitter as Thornton plays him, the audience accompanies the production's second half with a near-constant laugh track.
One of the gifts of the Actors' Renaissance Season at the Blackfriars Playhouse is getting a glimpse of how the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries might have appeared in their original productions. This production of Timon of Athens is a rare exception. It doesn't give us the play that is or was; rather, it's the masterpiece that could have been.
February 11, 2014