I’m going to go out on a limb and say William Shakespeare is a pretty good playwright. Yet his stories, his speeches, his one-liners have so pervaded our consciousness that its hard to look at his work through fresh eyes. Say thank you to the folks at Philadelphia Artist’s Collective for presenting TIMON OF ATHENS, a Shakespeare work that will be unfamiliar to most, even in its basic narrative.
TIMON is no KING LEAR (the play it most closely resembles). There is no record of a production during the Bard’s life (though that proves little), and many scholars view the text as unfinished. It is unrelentingly bleak, curiously crafted, difficult. But director Dan Hodge brings coherence to this flawed work, and Chris Coucill spearheads a talented cast, capturing the nobility-cum-misanthropy of the title character and breathing life into some penetratingly insightful verse.
Timon is a rich Athenian, who rejoices in giving money and gifts to those around him. His generosity bankrupts him, but when he seeks the aid of those to whom he gave so freely, they give him nothing. Disconsolate, he flees the company of men to live in the woods. His discovery of new riches there brings no succor as he has no friends left to provide for, just a rebellious general, Alcibiades (Jay Milhern), out to destroy the city Timon once loved.
Contemporary echoes are evident, and another director might be tempted to play up the corrupting nature of money. Instead, Hodge focuses on a thread that runs through many of the Bard’s plays: friendship and its vulnerability. With Prince Hal and the Eastcheap crowd, Leontes and Polixenes, Romeo and Mercutio, Shakespeare returns frequently to the theme of threatened brotherhood. Often the strain is romantic love: ”Friendship is constant in all other things. Save in the office and affairs of love,” says Claudio in MUCH ADO (now in a hilarious production at the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre). And sure enough, before long Benedick will be asked to kill his companion Claudio for a woman’s favor.
TIMON takes a bleaker view of human relations. In this play, friendship has “such a faint and milky heart” it can turn from loyalty to rejection “in less than two nights.” Friendship is glued only by selfishness. When Timon cracks, crying “I am sick of this false world, and will love nought but even the mere necessities upon it,” Shakespeare—and Hodge—invite us to relate to his disgust with mankind.
If Alcibiades kill my countrymen, Let Alcibiades know this of Timon, That Timon cares not. But if be sack fair Athens, And take our goodly aged men by the beards, Giving our holy virgins to the stain Of contumelious, beastly, mad-brain’d war, Then let him know, and tell him Timon speaks it, In pity of our aged and our youth, I cannot choose but tell him, that I care not
It is as though Iago was the hero of OTHELLO and Richard III was a misunderstood nobleman. Can this author be the same man who wrote the sonnets? Watching TIMON, one is struck with renewed appreciation of Shakespeare’s language, wisdom, and range.
Though close to the extremely high standard of PAC’s other readings and full-lengths (CREDITORS, CHANGES OF HEART), this welcome production is not without flaws: With occasional exceptions, the sound direction (a loud live guitar, unnecessary nature effects), is distracting rather than enhancing. Alcibiades is dressed in a male eye-candy leather-strap top, like an extra from the film 300, a costume which contrasts too severely with the togas and dresses of other characters.
You won’t leave the Broad Street Ministry thinking this is a underrated HAMLET, but you will leave excited by this rare opportunity to see a rich work by theater’s greatest asset.
Published by Stage Magazine.
TIMON OF ATHENS
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Dan Hodge
April 4-20, 2013
Philadelphia Artists’ Collective
at the Broad Street Ministry
315 S. Broad Street
Philadelphia, PA 19107