TIMON OF ATHENS
By William Shakespeare. Through Sept. 1 at the outdoor Delacorte Theater in New York's Central Park.
When you're producing a Shakespeare marathon that includes all the bard's plays, as the New York Shakespeare Festival has been doing over the past several years, interesting questions arise about the less-familiar works on the schedule. Are these undervalued gems? Or are there good reasons why they're seen less often than, say, "Hamlet" and "Macbeth," and would we all be better off if they stayed on the back burner for good?
The latter option may be appropriate in some cases, but not with "Timon of Athens," a minor play that deserves more attention than it usually receives. Even the all-encompassing Shakespeare Marathon has taken its time getting around to this one - it's the 32nd entry in the series, with only four plays still to go - but the wait has been worthwhile.
As directed by Brian Kulick, the production is pointed, pungent, and imaginative, suggesting that Shakespeareans everywhere would benefit from a fresh look at the drama.
"Timon of Athens" focuses on a popular Greek citizen who enjoys sharing his wealth. But nobody loves you when you're down and out, and when his bank account runs dry, his friends turn out to be a fair-weather crowd. Timon literally heads for the hills, deciding to live out his disillusioned life in solitude and sadness. The other central character is Alcibiades, a senator who also leaves society when his fellow politicians banish him for an outburst of self-righteous rage.
With this story to tell, it's not surprising that "Timon of Athens" is steeped in a sense of anger and bitterness more unalloyed than that of "King Lear," the tragedy most scholars think Shakespeare wrote before it. This may be a reason for the play's relative lack of popularity. Its prestige may also be lowered by the lack of complexity in its plot, which races ahead in a fairly straight line.
Many feel the play was unfinished or completed by a collaborator less talented than Shakespeare himself - which leaves a lot of candidates - and certainly it's more explosive than contemplative in its effect.
Kulick approaches the tragedy's emotionalism head-on, allowing it to sweep over the audience in powerful, unmodulated waves. He also devises theatrical metaphors that enhance these feelings, as when a banquet given by Timon dissolves in an eruption of fury. Kulick visualizes this by having the banquet table swirl about in crazy motion, throwing off chairs (and guests) with a centrifugal force that almost sends them hurtling from the stage. Equally inventive is Mark Wendland's set design, dominated by a sort of gigantic shoebox that takes on different positions and functions as the play progresses.
Michael Cumpsty, known for many stage productions and TV's popular "L.A. Law," gives Timon a suitably raw and raging personality, ably backed up by Jack Stehlin as the senator, Henry Stram as a loyal servant, and a good supporting cast. Mark Bennett composed the incidental music, which strengthens the atmosphere at well-chosen moments.
In all, the evening does exactly what a production at such an important American theater ought to do: cast light on an underrated play and demonstrate its viability for a diverse contemporary audience.
It might have been enough to cheer up the sad Athenian himself.
*Shakespeare dramas planned for the coming season at the indoor Joseph Papp Public Theater in New York are 'Antony and Cleopatra,' directed by and starring Vanessa Redgrave, and all three parts of 'Henry VI.'