By Tristan Lejeune
A third-tier Shakespeare play given a first-tier treatment can be an illuminating and surprising experience, but only if the cast and crew are self-aware about what they present. Don’t serve us meatloaf on Wedgwood china.
The Folger Theatre’s Timon of Athens, running through June 11, is a good one — probably as cohesive and well-planned a production of this theatrical misfit as you’re likely to find. But one gets the sense that only about half of those involved know they’re cooking up meatloaf.
Meet Timon. (“Hi, Timon.”) You can guess where he’s from. (“How’s Athens, Timon?”) Timon is very bad with money. Annnnnnd that’s pretty much his whole deal. (“Why ya gotta give away all your scratch, Timmy?”) Seriously. He’s well-spoken, because he’s a Shakespeare protagonist, but if you’re looking for intriguing subplots or thematic bounty, you’re in the wrong room.
Timon is a well-to-do Athenian nobleman who literally gives himself into penury. Between parties and presents, he can’t get rid of his skrilla quickly enough. And then he is shocked — shocked, I say! — as his comrades all desert him when he comes begging that they return the favor.
Directed by Robert Richmond, Timon’s first act has a lot of spit and polish; the second act is just spit, and it’s better. Actor Ian Merrill Peakes plays Timon (rhymes with Simon) driven somewhat mad by his destitution, writhing in the woods. But when he (with amusing promptness) discovers a hidden hoard of gold, we find that the more significant loss was his faith in humanity.
This leads to the two finest scenes in the play: broken, ineffective reconciliations between Timon and Apemantus (Eric Hissom), a philosopher who foresaw his downfall, and then Flavius (Antoinette Robinson), the servant who remained his only loyal friend. Peakes plays the title character a bit more wide-eyed and twitchy than is strictly necessary, but his comic timing was better than the crowd at Sunday night’s performance deserved, and he is excellent at Shakespearean serve-and-volley. Hissom and Robinson are his best tennis partners; he lobs with wit, she with heart.
Before all that, however, the first act has enough closed-circuit screens, monochromatic costumes, ominous noise effects and weird, angular money to fill a future-set episode of Doctor Who. Seriously, the be-robed Senate looks like it should have its own Dalek. Scene designer Tony Cisek is maybe the most talented working in D.C. right now, but after more than 20 productions at the Folger, it’s possible he got sick of the wood-paneled space and tried to make it disappear under flashing lights, sliding glass doors and a giant news ticker-style scrolling display. Your eyes keep moving, but the play improves once the cash runs dry and the lights go out.
Richmond’s director notes refer to the show as a “satire,” but it’s really more of a parable. In satires, people tend to get two names. The lessons here are simple, but arguably timeless.
Timon of Athens has less to say than most of Shakespeare’s plays, that much is irrefutable. But they say it pretty well at the Folger.