He that loves to be flattered with worthy of the flattery. What if that being flattered is deserving of the flattery? Are they too then still worthy of the flattery? Perhaps even more so! Folger Theatre, in particular Director Robert Richmond, deserves a great deal of flattery for the current production of Timon of Athens, closing out the 2016/2017 season upon the stage inside the great Folger Shakespeare Library. Under Robert Richmond’s judiciously rendered vision and modernization, this rarely produced Shakespearean tragedy-problem play receives an invigorating facelift, transfixing the audience to the greed that drives the core of humanity. Baring remarkable weight on present-day socio-economic issues, this striking production gives the audience much to mull over as they examine the way wealth factors into their daily lives.
Sleekly moving the production’s aesthetic from its original setting to a post-modern day futuristic era, the digital approach to the show’s production design is stellar and dizzying, at times to the point of sensory overload. This, however, plays into the nuances of Timon’s OCD behavior, which is coupled with his germaphobic tendencies and gives the audience a deep introspective scope of this protagonist’s viewpoint and overall experience. Scenic Designer Tony Cisek creates a futuristic household, not dissimilar to a high security prison with all of the digital screening mechanisms laced into the working cogs of its presentation. Cisek, who works in flawless tandem with Lighting Designer Andrew F. Griffin, Sound Designer Matt Otto, and Projection Designer Francesca Talenti, creates this digital landscape. Otto enhances the aesthetic with the whizzing swishes of air-compressed doors, computer technology at work, and other neo-space sounds that appropriately fit the actions on the stage. Rounding out this ingenious design is the work of Griffin and Talenti, whose work overlaps in the way characters are screened when they enter the house of Timon. At other points, Griffin’s work stands solo and creates a great deal of discomfort and foreboding when it comes to shadow play and silhouette usage in the second act.
Matching the futuristic vision of Director Robert Richmond and the design team, Costume Designer Mariah Hale approaches her sartorial selection in a series of serious suits— the color palette is navy. This dark and drab couture is perfect for the gravity of the business persona that weighs upon these characters, though Hale ensures that the bohemian Philosopher character of Apemantus is distinctively set apart from the rest, his wardrobe not being fully overridden by his misanthropic and cynical tendencies, but rather complimented by them. The wings of sassy Cupid (John Floyd), who arrives to one of Timon’s great revels as an exotic dancer alongside Phrynia (Aliyah Caldwell) and Timandra (Amanda Forstrom), are decadent and seductive.
Director Robert Richmond does an exceptional job of rendering down side plots, superfluity, and the general sense of excess that often comes with Shakespearean problem plays, leaving a simmering reduction of unadulterated plot driven by a sensationally well-cast Timon. Richmond’s aesthetic approach to the show gives the text a modern relevance that feels lost in the original translation, and his overall pacing of the production is smart, keeping points moving rapidly from one to the next without sacrificing information for the sake of speed. The only detracting factor from this vigorously innovative production seems to be the final 20 minutes. Though there appears to be no logical way to edit out these final expressions from Timon, and though it does move with a steady pace, relatively speaking, there is something about these ultimate moments that drags and slogs the play to its finish line rather than striding over it as the initial momentum may have intended.
Carved into the nuanced niches of the arrogantly affluent, the Merchant (Kathryn Tkel), the Poet (Michael Dix Thomas), the Painter (Andhy Mendez), and the Jeweler (Sean Fri) fit the bill for aristocratic party goers. Thomas gets an addition nod of praise for his affected southern accent when he transitions from Poet to Lucius. Wearing their airs like designer scarves and handbags, this quartet of performances is a sizzling static that is perpetually buzzing inside Timon’s mentality as well as his physical sightlines. Louis Butelli steps into the mix as Ventidius, the criminal, who is every bit the same as the others only with a gruffer and snarkier exterior when it comes to accepting his lot in life. The only one among them who sets themselves apart is the noble, albeit misguided, Alcibiades (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh.) Finding himself the butt of a political scape-goating, the Shakespearean result of which is nearly always banishment, Ebrahimzadeh takes the character on a transformative journey, which opens up his inner rogue spirits for all to see by the second act.
Dear, sweet Flavius (Antoinette Robinson) is but the voice of reason to Timon, but because she does not flatter and speaks only the truth, her pleas fall to deaf ears. Robinson is reverent in the role and makes her asides most heartily felt. The pivotal moment in her performance comes late in the second act when pleading with Timon for a return to service. She is countered well by Apemantus (Eric Hissom), and although the pair never play a scene directly with one another, they act as the boundaries of rhyme and reason in Timon’s life, even if he refuses to acknowledge them until it is too late. Hissom, whose character often takes to narrating moments of the play not unlike the director’s commentary on the bonus edition of DVD, has wise and insightful texts that allow the audience an unbiased look at the action as it unfolds around Timon. This is done in tandem with slow-motion action from the actors and drastic shifts in Griffin’s lighting plots. Cheeky and somewhat chaotic, Hissom gives a grand series of interactions against Timon directly late in the second act, and departs the stage with an exit most unsettling and haunting.
Baring the weight of the titular role tremendously well upon his sturdy shoulders, Ian Merrill Peakes tackles Timon of Athens superbly. Heightening the neurotic and obsessively-compulsive behavior that Robert Richmond has envisioned for the character, Peakes creates a man who is visually and emotionally intriguing to watch. From the way he shakes and carries himself upright to the meticulous way he hurdles over a certain step on the stairs, there is a fulfilling and deeply satisfying commitment to the neurosis that ticks away inside the psyche of this character. Watching Peakes during the revel wherein Cupid and Dancers arrive is hypnotic as he tries to avoid too much contact. Watching Peakes devolve as the character crashes and burns through the end of the first act and into the remainder of the play is jarring and mind-blowing in the way one cannot look away from a wreckage or natural disaster. There is a textual understanding of his speech that travels as an extension from his voice to his face, making Peakes’ expressions reflect all of the subtextual emotions that Timon experiences over the course of the performance that is equally as striking as the other components of his remarkable portrayal.
This unique and non-traditional production is the perfect way to experience Timon of Athens if the show is new to you, and it is a perfect way to revisit the story if you’ve had the fortune of encountering previously.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours with one intermission
Timon of Athens plays through June 11, 2017 at the Folger Theatre in the Folger Shakespeare Library— 201 E. Capitol Street SE in Washington DC. For tickets call the box office at (202) 544-7077 or purchase them online.