Few of Shakespeare’s plays make the transition from five acts to two as smoothly as Timon of Athens, the almost-tragedy going on now until March 22 at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. The story is bifurcated — or, perhaps more accurately, butterflied: not just split in two but laid out in halves, with all its themes and innards open for the audience to see.
In the first half, Timon (a top-notch Kathryn Hunter) is a generous fool; in the second, she’s an antisocial hermit, having gifted and bon vivant-ed herself right out of town. The play (which scholars now believe was a collaboration with Thomas Middleton) is not one of Shakespeare’s most evolved or elaborately plotted, but its before-and-after form gives it an interestingly modern feel.
And yes, that’s true for the subject matter as well, though I think most of us today would applaud a one-percenter who winds up in the poorhouse because they were too giving. When we first meet Timon, decked out in designer Soutra Gilmore’s gold-on-gold set and costumes, she’s a merry spendthrift, hurling money at friends and literally giving away gemstones as party favors. The good times, as they have a habit of doing, run out. But when, in three scenes this production wisely folds into one tripod, Timon sends out her loyal servants (John Rothman, Helen Cespedes and Adam Langdon, all good) to seek out financial assistance from those to whom it was earlier so eagerly given, they all come back empty-handed. One messy revenge dinner and cathartic fire later, Timon is an outcast, digging for root vegetables in the woods and railing against the evils of mankind to anyone who stops by.
Timon of Athens is rarely performed (though Folger did a decent one not quite three years ago), but Hunter leads a cast that smooths over most of the rough spots. As directed by the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s new artistic director Simon Godwin, the production has a cohesive visual style, a mature (and only occasionally lethargic) sense of pacing, and a pleasurable affinity for getting its hands dirty: water, fire, blood, dirt, and (obviously) lots of gold are all used for stagecraft conjuring.
That said: I wasn’t blown away. Despite Hunter’s fine work, the title character remains a frustrating one, full of whiplash moments. The music is more a distraction than an asset. And yeah, the morals of the story are pretty obvious before the first scene is over.
But perhaps that’s simply making Timon a victim of high expectations, which is ironic for a woman who gives away all her riches early on. You’re not likely to see a better production of this show, that’s for sure. All that glitters is not gold, but both halves of this story have the necessary sparkle.