The mission of the Philadelphia Artists’ Collective is to perform the more obscure works of yesteryear, and when it comes to Shakespeare (with a probable assist from Thomas Middleton), Timon of Athens surely qualifies. But while this satirical tragedy (or tragic satire) may be obscure, its themes are not: the story of a man succumbing to bankruptcy while his wealthy friends and the government look on is as meaningful today as it’s ever been.
Though the storyline is fairly unique for Shakespeare, one of the reasons for Timon’s obscurity may be the recurring suspicion that some of its characters have come from the cheap knock-off version of King Lear. However, the cast largely avoids this pitfall by infusing their roles with a pleasing complexity. Christopher Coucill gives an admirable performance of a once-powerful man betrayed by his friends who runs off naked and raving into the wilderness. He imbues Timon with a strength of character that primarily fuels his misplaced confidence (in either the virtue of his friends or in the utter perfidy of humankind), but also shows glimpses, beneath his vulnerabilities, of the genuinely great man whom the first citizens of Athens seek to recover for their defense. His faithful retainer Flavius is played by Nathan Foley, with an almost uncomfortable intensity that serves to highlight the disparity between the rightness of his cause and the lack of power he has to pursue it. Jihad Milhem is similarly intense as Alcibides, though in his case the effect serves to suggest the barely contained temper (and lurking PTSD) of a basically good but truly dangerous man threatening the city. Among the enjoyably obsequious performances of the actors portraying Timon’s friends, Annette Kaplafka stands out as the Senator, a consummate politician dedicated to the rule of law, whose grip on the reins of power never loosens to provide any mercy. The cast is almost uniformly excellent, and their Athenians possess a simmering undercurrent of jealous resentment that invigorates the production.
The set design by Katherine Fritz and director Dan Hodge is deliberately simple. It primarily consists of the unique performance space within the Broad Street Ministry building: a wide expanse of hardwood floor surrounded by the audience’s risers, leading back to a half-flight of stairs to a small proscenium arch set in the wall. Minimal props – a drink stand, a feasting table, tattered cloths to represent the wilderness – are provided as needed. By comparison, the costumes (also by Fritz) are an elaborate nod to the play’s setting of Ancient Greece. The wealthy characters are bedecked in ostentatious gold jewelry and clad, with the exception of Timon’s neutral white tunic, in a riotous sea of colors. The costumes of the disenfranchised stand in stark contrast: servants have roughly-hemmed homespun tunics, soldiers and prostitutes and the destitute Timon wear a variety of ragged garments as well as a healthy helping of dirt, and nobody has shoes. Sandwiched between them is the tiny middle class, with the painter and the poet in less elaborate imitations of their potential patrons’ finery, the professional soldier Alcibides in simple but partially decorative armor, and the professional cynic Apemantus in a collection of mismatched but clean cast-offs. While there are too many obviously modern fabrics and accessories to be precisely period, it still effectively evokes Ancient Greece and its highly traditional class-bound society.
This mix of indulgence and restraint by Hodge proves to be a very effective treatment of the play. He makes a number of small emendations to the text, trading off Timon’s veritable throng of hangers-on for a more manageable number of worthless friends, and in general streamlining the action of the play. These are largely effective, though the loss of the comic aspects of Apemantus (an excellently worldly and surprisingly friendly performance by Charlotte Northeast) perhaps diminishes some of the play’s satire. Despite the intimate size of the theater, the actors manage a good use of space while maintaining a sense of distance – except during the showdown when the Senate exiles Alcibides, when their mutual bellowing brings on an extremely effective claustrophobia. Conversely, Chad Brown’s live accompaniment accomplishes some nicely subtle effects, with the quiet rumble of bass piano chords (and some unplanned but apropos rolls of thunder) underscoring the rising tension.
The choice to avoid a modern setting while highlighting the modern applicability of the production is an intriguing one, especially with such blatant parallels as an easily identified one versus ninety-nine percent and a man unhappy with the state’s policies who is literally attempting to occupy the city. However, the PAC’s thoughtful approach serves another purpose: contextualizing our contemporary woes in the cycle of history and reinforcing the danger our society faces in succumbing to similar tragedies. It is an excellent illustration of the value of their mission: Timon of Athens, written in early modern England, set in Ancient Greece, and performed in 21st-century America, comments on all three, and though obscure is still extremely relevant.