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Theatre in Review: Timon of Athens (Theatre for a New Audience/Shakespeare Theatre Company)

Kathryn Hunter. Photo: Henry Grossman.

The world of Timon of Athens is one of false glitter -- illusory wealth, faithless friends, and social status that evaporates overnight -- but, at TFANA, the play has a solid-gold centerpiece named Kathryn Hunter. Taking on a role written for a man, she effortlessly achieves a gender transition, bringing it a sense of coherence that has eluded many a great actor.

Entering to general onstage acclaim, Hunter's Timon is the most bountiful of ladies, a hostess who gladly, even gleefully, showers her guests with food, wine, presents, and cash. A wiry, pint-sized figure in a flowing golden gown, she circumnavigates her dining room, arms extended, beaming beatifically, basking in the adoration accorded her. "More welcome are ye to my fortunes/than my fortunes to me," she announces, and she means it. Little wonder that she is idealized in paintings and lionized in poems; after all, she is paying for everything. As her dinner party climaxes in a downpour of golden confetti, this Timon could be a high-society figure right out of a fawning Vanity Fair profile.

But Timon's gilded world is built on sand and, all too quickly, it vanishes, along with her money; having bankrupted herself with her generosity, she joins the dispossessed, trading haute couture for filth and rags, swapping out her endless benevolence for an equally expansive misanthropy. Indeed, she resembles nothing so much as a Samuel Beckett figure, struggling to scratch out a living on an arid patch of earth. At TFANA, the sight of Timon, homeless and abandoned, roused from sleep by a nagging alarm clock, instantly calls to mind Winnie, the loveless, semi-buried heroine of Beckett's Happy Days.

Timon of Athens is credited to Shakespeare and Thomas Middleton, although there are differences of opinion about the extent of the latter's contributions. (At TFANA, he is listed as co-author.) To me, the play has always felt like the work of distinct and clashing sensibilities. The first act, with its procession of poets, painters, and various hangers-on fleecing Timon of every last bauble, is satirical comedy edged with farce; the second act is informed by a bone-bleaching cynicism that makes twentieth-century absurdist playwrights look like the inhabitants of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. This cleaved sensibility extends to Timon, who executes a one-hundred-eighty-degree turn halfway through, turning against humanity in general; it's a transition that is difficult to account for, even with his many tribulations.

Hunter delivers both halves of the character with the expected vigor and insight; more unexpectedly, she accounts for Timon's violent change of heart. Many actors are content to embody his extremes, making him all charm in the first half and a howling, Lear-like beast in the second. In contrast, Hunter finds a thread that takes us from here to there: She couldn't be giddier in the early scenes, but, as questions are raised about her wealth, a certain wariness creeps into her expression, signaling that trouble is brewing and she knows it. Entering a room filled with those who have benefited from her largesse and saying, "With all my heart, and how fare you all?" she eyes the crowd, calculating who among them might actually be trustworthy.

Such details lay the groundwork for the moment when, her fury unleashed at bosom companions who cannot spare her the tiniest coin, she serves them a befouled meal, smearing them with blood and denouncing them, in an especially delectable passage of Elizabethan invective, as "most smiling, smooth, detested parasites/Courteous destroyers, affable wolves, meek bears/You fools of fortune, trencher-friends, time's flies/Cap and knee slaves, vapors and minute-jacks!" After this outpouring, it's hardly surprising that she concludes the first half by taking a match to her home.

In ruin, Hunter's Timon isn't so much enraged as wised-up, deadly certain that men are beasts and society little more than a vicious scramble for money and position. Speaking in a voice informed by the rustle of autumn leaves, she pauses, carefully considering her options before delivering the mot juste that casts a plague on humanity. Confronted by a pair of sycophants who believe she has struck gold -- she has, though little she cares for it -- she briskly forces them to eat worms and drink urine, testing the depth of their avarice before driving them off with threats and hurled objects. Indicting the whole of existence, she notes, with chilling reasonableness, "The sun's a thief and with his great attraction/Robs the vast sea; the moon's an arrant thief/And her pale fire she snatches from the sun/The sea's a thief, whose liquid surge resolves/The moon into salt tears; the earth's a thief/That feeds and breeds by a composture stol'n/From general excrement. Each thing's a thief."

If Hunter is one of the finest Timons of my memory, this is still Timon of Athens, a bifurcated work that reaches to cartoonish extremes to render its moral lesson. The penetrating psychological insights of Shakespeare's best work is largely absent; the poetry is crabbed, thick with unchecked rancor and the clatter of denunciation. Simon Godwin's production, using an edited and sometimes restructured text by him and Emily Burns, is sometimes uncertainly staged, especially in its bunched handling of the early party scenes: I spent a surprisingly long stretch of the first half staring at actors' backs. The other cast members capably hit their marks, but, aside from Apemantus, the bitter philosopher who is Timon's opposite number -- here given a cranky, contemporary spin by Arnie Burton -- few of them have an opportunity to shine. John Rothman finds considerable pathos as Timon's loyal, fretful steward. Helen Cespedes and Adam Langdon are solid as Timon's servants. Shirine Babb, Daniel Pearce, and Dave Quay stand out in the gaggle of grasping acolytes.

The production is notably stylish, thanks to Soutra Gilmour's production design, which includes a sumptuous banquet room and a line of foppish haute couture replete with enough fashion crimes for a Met Museum Costume Institute Gala. Donald Holder's stunning lighting commands a variety of angles, creating a series of sharply different looks. Christopher Shutt's sound design includes crowds, birds, and explosions, along with reinforcement for the vocals of Kristen Misthopoulos, set to the Greek-themed music by Michael Bruce.

A strange play, Timon of Athens is certainly appropriate to our status-driven, money-mad era, but it is only worth trotting out with a star who is equal to the occasion. Thanks to Hunter, the production has a star quality all its own. -- David Barbour

(22 January 2020)

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