- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 23, 2000

A straggler among Shakespeare's works, "Timon of Athens" is rarely seen on the stage. Washingtonians now can understand why. The Shakespeare Theatre tries to squeeze some grandeur and pathos out of the text but can't find enough to make a decent show.
Timon (Philip Goodwin), inheritor of a large fortune, has a constant swirl of sycophants and hangers-on clinging to his garments. He wastes his wealth on fancy gifts and dinners with his friends and cares not in the least about his properties and finances.
When his lands are all mortgaged and his money runs out, he turns to his loyal old steward Flavius (Emery Battis) and then begs his friends to help him in his penury. This being a tragedy, his friends laugh off the request, thinking it a joke.
Without a drachma to his name, Timon goes insane and goes off to live in a junkyard (in Shakespeare's text, a cave). Meanwhile, Alcibiades (Michael Genet), an Athenian military hero, is exiled for defending one of his men against a murder charge. The soldier vows revenge against the venal, money-grubbing senators who sentence him. He and Timon meet in the wasteland outside the city, with the former impotently railing against the corruption of Athens and the latter preparing to take the city by force.
As Timon, Mr. Goodwin has very little with which to work. He has some vituperative speeches, but no enemies vex him as in the major Shakespearean tragedies. The closest he has is Apemantus (Ted van Griethuysen), an itinerant philosopher who warns him against trusting the men whom he called "friends." Apemantus later finds Timon to discuss his fate, and their verbal exchange manages to rise above the rest of the dialogue.
Mr. Genet is an experienced actor who has appeared on Broadway and in movies, but he keeps moving his body in jarring ways as if he wants to escape the strictures of his role. He shows Alcibiades as a more noble figure than Timon, because he is banished for trying to save one of his own men, but the part calls for more posturing than heroism.
The difficulty here is that "Timon" is a shorter, less developed "King Lear," and the comparisons between the two make "Timon" look even worse. The play has some good epigrams: "Nothing so emboldens sin as mercy," and "He that loves to be flattered is worthy o' the flatterer." But the verses are oceans away from the incandescent poetry of "Lear," though the plays were written only three or four years apart.
More important, "Timon" provides little to engage the audience's emotions. The scholar E.K. Chambers surmised that "Timon" was a first draft that Shakespeare never bothered to rewrite, a theory that snugly fits the facts.
"Lear" has the honest, loving Cordelia, but "Timon" has no one to sympathize with — and no one to root against, either. Timon's friends are petty, but not cruel. They even might have lent him money if they had thought his plight was serious. "Lear" is about a sinful man who receives more than his due for his failures, seeing his earthly loves and possessions slip away while he drifts toward the precipice of death. "Timon" is the chronicle of a silly man who dies hating humanity for no good reason.
Director Michael Kahn moves the play forward in time from fifth-century Athens to 1980s America, but that doesn't help. "Modernizing" Shakespeare is a common enough device, but why the '80s? Other than aerobics and electronic music, the decade doesn't have much to contribute aesthetically. Mr. Kahn apparently wanted to root "Timon" in the "decade of greed," but the '90s — the decade that gave us day trading, the SUV and the super-size meal — would be a good comparison, too. The audience also would not have to endure break dancing.
A large wall of metal and glass, running at a skewed angle from the lights to the stage floor, symbolizes Timon's flashy surroundings, then his descent into hopelessness when it appears with broken panes in Act IV. The majority of Walt Spangler's sets are organized around this sleek backdrop, although it has the effect of foreshortening the depth of the stage and making the action appear as two-dimensional as the script. Elizabeth Hope Clancy's period costumes are depressingly accurate, right down to the Converse high tops.
That even Shakespeare was capable of writing a bad play may comfort some. But if you find it curious that the words "Shakespeare" and "bad play" can appear in the same sentence, you may want to see "Timon of Athens." That is the strongest reason to see it, whether staged by the Shakespeare Theatre or anyone else.

WHAT: "Timon of Athens"

WHERE: The Shakespeare Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday (except Oct. 10 and 17), Wednesday and Sunday (except Oct. 22); 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; and noon Oct. 11

TICKETS: $14.25 to $62

PHONE: 202/547-1122 or www.shakespearedc.org

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