Review: TIMON OF ATHENS at Shakespeare Theatre Company

By: Feb. 27, 2020
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Review: TIMON OF ATHENS at Shakespeare Theatre Company

The week the stock market erases its year's gains may be just the right time to open a not-often produced play about swift changes in fortune.

"Timon of Athens" has a home at the Shakespeare Theatre Company if only because it's one of his lesser-known plays.

Long suspected to have been co-written, the splashy production imported from the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-Upon-Avon just goes right ahead and splits byline credit: "By William Shakespeare and Thomas Middleton."

Its updating here, with editing that adds some new juxtapositions, is by Emily Burns and Simon Godwin, the lanky young director who is also the new artistic director at the D.C. theater.

The big change in this modern-day (or actually, set "sometime in the future") variation is supposed to be the gender changes in many of the biggest roles (the only woman's role in the original play was that of a lowly prostitute late in the play).

But that doesn't seem to alter things a bit, actually, especially for the play's title role, as fealty to a rich, high society woman can be just as obsequious as that surrounding a rich dude.

The stage is being set for a lavish dinner party as the audience takes its seat. Indeed, some of its servers go out into the crowd to offer pre-dinner hors d'oeuvres. Soutra Gilmour's set has two chandeliers, and an grand slotted entryway that might as well be the Tomb of Dendur from the Met.

Flecks of gold are everywhere, in the costumes (also by Gilmour) of the sycophants gathered and that of its lauded host.

Olivier-award winning Kathryn Hunter is a surprise and delight in the role, not just because she is in a dress (and the addition of the title "Lady Timon" that must change the meter of some of the bard's lines) but because she is so tiny and still commanding, as if an RBG in their midst. Even with a bun in her head and Japanese style hair sticks, she only stands slightly taller than guests who kneel before her. Her gravelly voice and intensity recall Keith Richards.

Everyone hangs on her every turn - mostly because they want to squeeze a little favor or a jewel as gift from her. A painter unveils a bad painting; a poet reads a bad poem; a jeweler offers a new necklace.

And they're all quite entertaining; Godwin, in his directoral debut at the Shakespeare Theater Company wants to play this as a raucous satire (the program suggests the riches-to-rags TV comedies "Arrested Development" and "Schitt's Creek" for delving into similar themes).

So the broad acting of Zachary Fine, Jonatan Gebeyehu and Liam Craig who scoot to the table like Keystone Cops, backed by the on-stage musical quartet playing the Eastern-influenced music of Michael Bruce (aided by actress Kristen Misthopoulos who takes to the microphone to sing a few times). It all fits; a dinner party at a fine house might have a live quartet playing.

The one guest who doesn't want something from her is her philosopher friend, Apemantus (Arnie Burton), who wears a Patti Smith T-shirt, a messenger bag and an eternal sneer.

When a phalanx of bankers and bill collectors converge (in the segment that seems most telescoped), the changes in fortune is as swift and as jolting now as it must have been 400 years ago. It's the same kind of tale told during the Depression by Bessie Smith, when she sang "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out."

But Timon doesn't so much lament as lash out. Inviting her friends over for a second meal now that they've denied to loan her any money or return any of the generosity she once gave, she seethes and soaks them with a retribution painted red.

It's a rebuke so strong, it undoes any lightness that had gone before and apparently hits with a wallop: several of the opening night dandies didn't stay for the second half as a result.

And that second half (after much stage-cleaning and a new setting, deep in the woods) is quite different, with the homeless Timon now dirty and literally digging her own grave, cursing humankind in such a bitter manner that even the punk philosopher recoils (it also leads to a nifty line created for the gender shift, in which she calls herself Ms. Anthrope).

She eats roots and relieves herself in a bucket and shares in those with any luckless visitors (and even people in the front row). She'll fund revolutionaries who travel through, but only if they'll kill everybody in town. There's no happy ending in sight, and maybe not much of an ending at all (this is, scholars decided, one of his "problem plays").

But there's a strength and resonance to both Hunter's snarling, affecting performance and a production so seemingly attuned to the world's current chaos. One hardly needs an ever-downward Dow ticker on stage to get the modern connection.

Amid the splendid cast, another standout is John Rothman, as Timon's trusty chief steward. The actor, who was Emmy-worthy in his role in the Tig Notaro Amazon series "One Mississippi" here shows the same humanity and precision.

This "Timon of Athens" is only the second production in D.C. in the last 20 years (Folger Shakespeare Theatre had a version in 2017). But it comes at just the right time to underscore the echoing doom outside the theater doors, while heralding the bold talent at the helm of the company.

Running time: 2 1/2 hours with one intermission.

Photo credit: John Rothman and Kathryn Hunter in "Timon of Athens." Photo by Gerry Goodstein.

"Timon of Athens" runs through March 22 at the Michael R. Klein (formerly the Lansburgh) Theatre, 450 7th St. NW. Tickets at 202-547-1122 or online.


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