The inaugural production for The Public Theatre’s Public LAB Shakespeare program has great ambitions to fulfill its directives: “to present fresh, raw, and relevant plays that embrace...the public issues of our time” and “bring Shakespeare at his most spare, clear, and muscular to a wider community of theatergoers.” The goals are equal parts inspiring and ambitious, and Timon of Athens is an especially pertinent play for our current times, and despite its narrative faults it has potential. Director Barry Edelstein, who also serves as Director of the Shakespeare Initiative program, shines in creating atmosphere and spectacle, but his leadership of the cast is less focused, seeming to let every actor fend for himself.
Immediately on entering the intimate theater, the eye is drawn to the set: delicate chandeliers casting soft, flattering light; richly-designed red carpeting and wallpaper; gold and black dining room chairs set against the theater’s bright white columns on stage. The orange scaffolding off to stage right seems jarring, but designer Neil Patel works in the functional incongruity by hanging another chandelier from the end—whether in acknowledgment of the eyesore or in taking advantage of the necessity is not apparent, but it works.
Once the play begins, Russell H. Champa’s lighting is stark and bleak, warming only the slightest when Timon throws his fair-weathered friends a banquet of caviar and wine (most aptly, his friends toast his health with “Long may he live in fortune.”). One of the most effective moments in the production is when the house lights are thrown on to show the exposed vulnerability of Timon’s mansion, dismantled piece by piece before our eyes. We watch the deconstruction of the stage to set Timon’s cave, a truly dismal hovel that the once-rich man happily accepts as his punishment and saving grace from humanity. The mobility of Patel’s set, including the chandeliers and various lamps, is compelling in creating new settings with choice pieces and in keeping the flow of the production from slowing.
Live music is always more evocative than recorded, but it’s so critical that it blend with the show, instead of clanging against it. Curtis Moore’s rock power-chords as transition and thematic music is well-executed but doesn’t evoke anything except irritation towards the end—it doesn’t match the tone or the atmosphere that the designers have created for the production.
Katherine Roth’s choices in costuming Timon and his friends are perfectly specific and invoke certain caricatures of the rich: Timon in a well-fitted dusty aqua suit, an expression of style and class but with a touch of garish recklessness; a noble in a velour jogging suit, a seeming comment on wealth, newly acquired without class or style; fashionable faux intellectuals and cheap-suited merchants, all hangers-on of Timon’s money, exchanging flattery for ego-boosting. Until the bills are due.
Richard Thomas has a hard job: hold a play through the first sharply edged but shallow half until it hits the emotional heart in the second half. His Timon starts as an earnest, generous man, painfully naive to his circumstances and his turncoat friends. Is Timon’s fault that he can’t see the darker, fallible side of humanity, or that he let his inability to understand our weaknesses destroy him? As his eyes are opened to the greed and selfishness that forcibly humbles us, Thomas misses some crucial steps between blissful ignorance and rage, not allowing a natural build into the fury that consumes him. Timon ends up in a downward spiral of self-loathing and self-pitying, caught in the very self-absorption that creates the greed he abhors. No doubt that the material is richer in the second half, but Edelstein doesn’t give Thomas room to fill in the shortcomings of the text, or the necessary feedback to fully realize the first half.
Mark Nelson as Flavius, the ever-faithful and neurotic steward, is the most stead-fast in his character. Making use of the scaffold as a perch, almost to look down onto a chess game that he can’t play, he paces nervously back and forth, knowing how this is going to go down. Such fretting makes him feel like he has agency, but he is helpless to help, to keep the wolfish debt-collectors at bay.
Not playful like Touchstone, nor sympathizing like Lear’s Fool, Apemantus is not a fully-realized fool character, part condescending and melancholy Jacques but suspiciously lacking insightful fool-wisdom. Max Casella certainly makes a good show of what Apemantus could be, but the character skims along the top instead of getting into the deep messiness that the play wants to explore. Similarly, Alcibides the army captain seems to have two modes: slightly disturbed and uncomfortable in Timon’s lavish social functions and full-force rage against Athens, without a full range in between. Reg E. Cathay does both fairly well, though once he airs his grievances before the Senate, he seems to lose the subtlety that kept Alcibides from becoming a paper cut-out of Angry Soldier Man.
Director Barry Edelstein creates a beautiful production with little emotional substance. The overdirected opening is hyper-melodramatic, and the feast of debauchery, complete with vintage pornography and lewd miming of sexual acts, was chaotic to watch and transitioned poorly into the next scene. Who would think that a orgiastic bacchanal would need some order and structure? Or perhaps it was micro-managed to the point of senselessness. To be fair, the most powerful image of the play was the hanging of the condemned man, visually chilling and sickly fascinating, heavy with the notion that a man’s life is worth nothing but his mistakes, alternating between horror and interest in how the mechanics work.
Edelstein makes a very pretty show—until the bills are due for emotional catharsis, and then he comes up a little short. It’s a difficult play to tackle for many reasons, no doubt; but since it is so incredibly timely, there’s an expectation to see a production that can aid us in the present. I was hoping to see The Public do what they do best: show us who we are and what we are capable of through the mistakes—and hopefully redemption—of others.