On Tuesday, I saw Shakespeare’s rarely produced Timon of Athens at the Folger Shakespeare Library, directed by Robert Richmond.
I would say that I’m a fan of Shakespeare. I’ve read and seen a good number of his plays. While I’m sure many of you are intimately familiar with Timon of Athens, I was not.
I learned from my experience with Macbeth that I had better read as much of the program as I could for fear I understand approximately none of it, so I read the program enough to learn that it’s about a rich man, Timon (who lives in Athens), who spends all of his money on his friends and turns into a poor man, can’t depend on them, runs off into the woods, finds gold, and then spurns his so-called-friends when they come back to ask for money again. Also that this production relies on technology as a driving force of action.
Watching this play, I felt like I understood every word of it. It was fascinating and wonderful watching the actors make me understand their words. I was extremely impressed with the actors and director. Technology was used, but always in a way that enhanced the story and the relationships, never detracted from it.
The set, designed by Tony Cisek, was full of slanted lines, diagonals, and had an upper level. It was covered in black mirrors, reflective surfaces, multi-colored fluorescent tubes; it looked like a nightclub. It was perfect for the futuristic setting with its palm-scan-activated doors, where money (or talents) could be transferred by a simple wave of one’s hand over the tablet.
The projections, by Francesca Talenti, and lighting, by Andrew F. Griffin, contributed to that technological vibe through face recognition software upon the entrance of a new character, and dramatic, musical-esque lighting. It worked well with the nightclub style of the first act. The second act in the woods seemed perpetually shrouded in darkness, interlocking with harsh white light, often mirroring the plight of Timon’s soul.
There is one moment where there is live interface between the projections and what’s happening on stage. I don’t want to spoil what happens per se, but someone live-streams a horrific occurrence; it’s gritty and wonderfully-utilized technology.
Often, I’m concerned that when technology is used, we won’t see as much relationship-building between characters. The director, rather than shying from that, leaned in and even staged a majority of the dialogue to be performed out to the audience. As in, both characters would be speaking to each other, but facing the audience and acting as if they were seeing the other in front of them. This really drew the audience up onto the stage and engaged us with the text. We were able to hear the actors, see their movements and faces, and not lose that interaction between them. I felt like I was a part of the story.
We could certainly hear the music and sounds, designed by Matt Otto. There were a lot of high-pitched, long-lasting, vibrating-through-the-body kind of sounds. It clearly made people uncomfortable. Obviously that was more or less the goal, but I think they could have been made shorter or quieter. It detracted a bit from my enjoyment.
The costumes, by Mariah Hale, beautifully added to the ominous tone. Every single character was clad in navy blue, with individual accents and unique costumes for each. Timon sported a fitting three-piece suit in the first act. The trendy merchant wore a blue jumpsuit and circular shades. Apemantus, the philosopher, wore a navy sport coat, but was differentiated by his blue and white scarf. I could go on. Each costume perfectly suited the character. (Suit? Get it? I’m hilarious!)
The characters themselves were also wildly different considering that most of the cast played multiple characters. One thing that I appreciated about this play is that I felt like Shakespeare gave adequate time for each interaction, none were too short, nor too long. I read in the program that this play is attributed to both Shakespeare and a collaborator, Thomas Middleton. I don’t know if it was Middleton’s doing, or the way Richmond cut the play for this production, but the timing seemed right in the play where sometimes it doesn’t in other Shakespeare plays.
One interaction I particularly want to touch on is in the second act: Timon, played by Ian Merrill Peakes, has found gold in the woods and rather than hoarding or rebuilding his former fortune, he gives it away again, telling people to use it to destroy Athens and all of the hypocrites of live there. He is raving and mad.
And who should come along but misanthropic Apemantus (Eric Hissom), who warned him this would happen in the beginning of the play. It’s never clear if Apementus is truly there or is a figment of Timon’s crazed imagination. Every time Timon spins around to look at Apementus, he’s gone. Apementus slides in and out of the set, appearing in a new place much to the torment and delight of Timon. They engage in a battle of insults, neither one wanting to concede defeat for it’s clearly much too fun for them to continue warring. The actors did a lovely job of having fun on stage in a play that is mostly classified as a tragedy.
I would give this play a 9/10. I immensely enjoyed everything that the actors and director were doing, loved the technical elements (minus the sound), and honestly felt like I understood the play. This truly is a talented cast! (Get it? Because talents are money in the play…See the play, you’ll get it.)
Ps. Shout-out to Amanda Forstrom, who I’ve worked with and is so amazing!