Timon of Athens is a fascinating, complicated study of character, politics, and greed that should be produced more often than it is – at least if it is given a robust, coherent production like the one that it is getting at the Folger Shakespeare Theatre. This adaptation – the first D.C. has seen in 17 years – is done in modern dress and set in a contemporary digital world, but its text is pure Shakespeare, full of rich philosophy and poetry, calling up echoes of many of Shakespeare's more familiar works.
At the beginning of the play, Timon is a wealthy aristocrat who delights in giving great banquets and bestowing expensive gifts on the people who surround him. It is not surprising for him to give his acquaintances gold, jewels, and even race horses. He bails a friend out of debtors' prison and bids him to come visit, when Timon promises to give him more money to make sure he doesn't fall back into debt.
Because of his magnanimity, Timon assumes that the people to whom he is so generous will be equally generous to him if he ever needs them to be.
Yet when Timon's assistant, Flavius, comes to tell him that his coffers are empty, Timon finds out that the beneficiaries of his largesse will not help him. Timon's response to this rejection from his acquaintances is to give up on society. He invites all his former beneficiaries to one more banquet but once they are there, he reviles and humiliates them, then disappears into the wilderness and continues to live there alone and bitter, in self-imposed exile, disgusted with the unthinking selfishness of humanity. To his immense surprise he finds a stash of gold, enough to allow him to return to his earlier life of wealth and ease, but he gives it away, determined never to return to his earlier existence.
Ian Merrill Peakes is excellent as this modern-day Timon, who is clearly a germophobe. He is loath to embrace people who would hug him and immediately wipes his palms when people try to shake his hand. He seems to truly delight in making other people happy, although he is always at a distance from those people. He has nothing of a solid personal life: no wife or children.
In the second half of the play, Peakes is even more brilliant, being separated from a toxic society and refusing to consider returning to his home, remaining isolated because he has been so disappointed by the people he once thought were his friends.
As Flavius, Antoinette Robinson is extremely sympathetic to Timon as she goes twice to his compatriots to beg for money. Maboud Ebrahimzadeh is stalwart as Alcibiades, the military man who is Timon's friend. Louis Butelli is tough and crafty as Ventidius, the debtor whom Timon bails out of jail. Eric Hissom is deliciously negative as the cynical philosopher Apemantus, who has an extended dialogue with Timon in the second half of the play, where they try to outdo each other in their hateful visions of the world.
There is a lively bacchanal midway through the play that gives some sense of the times that Timon is living in: Aliyah Caldwell plays Phrynia, Amanda Forstrom plays Timandra, and John Floyd plays Cupid – all three super sexy characters.
Robert Richmond directs Timon at a fast pace throughout. He makes Timon at the end an unspeakably unhappy character, who runs around his small plot of land like a man reduced to the most basic elements of his environment: a cave and a tree.
Tony Cisek's set for the first half of the play uses bright, neon bands of light above and around the stage. Each character's name is electronically flashed on above the stage as he or she enters for the first time and electronic diamond shapes travel on a screen above the stage like symbols in Timon's personal Bitcoin system.
In the second half of the play, this modern setting is replaced by an empty stage with a hole in the ground, where Timon finds his gold. Mariah Hale's costumes alter as Timon's fortunes do. In the first half of the play, Timon appears as a business man in a three-piece suit. In the second half, he wears no shirt or shoes and his pants are tattered. Navy blue is the predominant color for most costumes worn by businessmen, artists, and senators. Matt Otto's sound design creates a modern rock score for certain parts of the play, especially the banquets and bacchanal.
Although Timon of Athens may never be considered one of Shakespeare's finest plays, this Folger production offers not only a lucid and articulate image of the role of money and credit in an increasingly commercialized modern world. It also realizes an agonizing but comprehensible vision of the psychological destruction of a man who falsely believes he has friends and thinks he lives in a world where showing generosity will beget generosity. In this Timon, essential man is shown at his most naked and alone.