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Review: ‘Timon of Athens’ at Folger Theatre

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Undone by his own goodness? Ha! That is not what I took away as director Robert Richmond succeeded masterfully with his contemporary, blasting grenade of an interpretation for Shakespeare’s rarely produced Timon of Athens at Folger Theatre.

Banished Alcibiades (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh  left) confronts his old companion Timon (Ian Merrill Peakes). Photo by Teresa Wood.

Subtlety be damned is what Richmond, his cast, and the design team have rendered into a modern morality play for these slippery times when facts are considered contextual and IMHO (in my humble opinion) is a readily used watchword by those of all political stripes.

Thanks to Folger veteran and Helen Hayes Award recipient Ian Merrill Peakes as Lord Timon, Timon of Athens is a superior full throttle production. Peakes gives a devastating “real” portrayal of an arrogant, self-important man who dressed so fine, throwing his friends parties and showering them with gifts when in his prime. Then he becomes a man dropped from the celebrity “A” list to live without a real home, scrounging for his next meal. (Yes, Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” came to mind as I left the Folger the other night).

So a bit of a synopsis of Timon of Athens from the Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Texts (also printed in the Timon program):

Timon (Ian Merrill Peakes, center standing) serves a surprise dish to his dinner guests (l to r: Andhy Mendez, Sean Fri, John Floyd, Kathryn Tkel, and Louis Butelli). Photo by Teresa Wood.

In Timon of Athens, Lord Timon discovers the limits of wealth and friendship. He spends freely on others and hosts banquets for many guests. {They take center-stage as vogueing, posing, vamping, and primping creatures]. Despite his servant’s (Antoinette Robinson softly, steadfast in her performance) warnings, he spends so excessively that his money runs out—and the philosopher Apemantus (Eric Hissom a man well suited to a rapid fire, back-and-forth, drumline of snippy dialogue) condemns his flatterers as insincere.

Soon Timon’s creditors begin to call in their loans. Timon expects help from his friends, but they all refuse him money. Furious, he invites them again to a banquet but serves only water and stones before he dismisses them, cursing Athens. He exiles himself to a wilderness.

There the embittered Timon finds gold. He gives some to enemies of Athens and to prostitutes and bandits. When Senators beg him to return to Athens as a military leader to save the city from his banished friend Alcibiades, he refuses and retreats to a cave to die. Alcibiades (a solid, stoic, friend-to-the-end Maboud Ebrahimzadeh ) defeats Athens but promises to protect the city and its citizens.

As convincingly portrayed by Peakes, the initially self-assured Lord Timon didn’t registered with me as a man to give my unfettered sympathy. He was a conflicted complex man, cold to the touch for much of Act I. He is far from an icon of virtue who unjustly wronged, bearing no responsibility for his own downfall. Jeez, remember he doesn’t even listen to his steward tell him that tough times are coming. He merely chooses shrug his shoulders and kiss off his storm warnings as if only he can know anything.

In Richmond’s staging, Peakes portrays Lord Time as cunning, not naïve. He makes his own choice to cut himself off from real humanity and warm intimacy, He seems a user in his own way by displaying his wealth and buying friends to keep from being lonely. Through much of Act I, Peakes makes Timon an observer of others, not a participant with them. He is a man hard to trust as he watches his “friends” revel, almost as if he is recording the events for later use should he need evidence of their wrongdoing.

Add in that Peakes’ Lord Timon display some obsessive compulsive mannerisms, the least of which is a constant handwashing fixation after touching objects along with panic if someone tries to touch him. (It has been a long time since I read or consulted with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders [DSM–5], but I have to imagine that someone in this mighty production did).

Phrynia (Aliyah Caldwell, left) and Timandra (Amanda Forstrom) humor their bait, Timon (Ian Merrill Peakes). Photo by Teresa Wood.

So when bad times finally do come to Lord Timon with few standing by him, well, maybe Timon got what he deserved. When Peakes as Timon explodes in a frenzy of upset, spewing invectives toward one and all, when he serves a meal that leads to nausea, when he calls women sluts and whores, when he wishes all of Athens to be dispatched, well, maybe he is showing his true unsympathetic rich-boy, bully-boy nature. But, gosh what an astonishing performance Peakes gives his Timon character, especially in an Act II major breakdown that left me stunned in its believability.

The Timon of Athens staging is of the world of a “right-now” digital social media oligarchs thanks to Tony Cisek’s eye-popping reinvention of the Folger venue. With lighting by Andrew F. Griffin, sound by Matt Otto, projection design by Francesca Talenti, and stunning costumes by Mariah Hale, as a regular Folger theater-goer I was dumbstruck by what has been accomplished (including hiding the infamous pillars at stage right and left.). I find myself in a place full of digital gadgets, LED scrolling images and even characters’ entrances enhanced names brightly depicted on a screen as they came into view. Then in Act II, as fortune was fickle to Lord Timon, the same space becomes a forlorn homeless shelter in its look. Now that was a wow to my eyes.

Folger’s Timon of Athens is verbal white heat. It is a combustible mix right for these currents of disruption and political quicksand. Was Timon undone by his goodness? As I wrote at the top of this review, I can’t go there even as Lord Timon’s rails against “false world,” and hates humanity. Do I pity the character of Lord Timon? That is difficult for me; for his own hubris does him in.

But oh what a splendid production and oh, what a magnificent performance by Ian Merrill Peakes as Lord Timon. So, when you see it, please do comment and let me know what you think.

Running Time: Two hours, with one intermission

Timon of Athens plays through June 11, 2017, at Folger Theatre – 201 East Capitol Street, SE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 544-7077, or purchase them online.

Note: The performance utilizes strobe lights, theatrical haze, firearms, and loud noises. Children under the age of four are not permitted in the theater.

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3 Responses to Review: ‘Timon of Athens’ at Folger Theatre

  1. Jennifer Sanchez May 16, 2017 at 10:13 am #

    Saw this production twice and going again! It’s like candy for the eyes!!! Bravo to cast & crew!!!

  2. Lynn Gill May 17, 2017 at 7:33 am #

    Sorry cannot agree- saw it too but it was an assault to the ear and eyes- it seemed too gimmicky for me!

  3. Martin Arrowsmith May 22, 2017 at 10:45 am #

    The production was great drama and thoroughly enjoyable.

    Given that Timon was a historical misanthrope (according to Plutarch), I can only assume the author(s) of the play (Shakespeare? Middleton? Both?) seek(s) to explain the origin of his misanthropy.

    Your characterization of Timon “before the fall” I think is spot on; his generosity seems very self serving. His inevitable bankruptcy is clearly his own fault, and his false friends bought with money desert him as would be expected when the money is gone.

    So I see the second half of the play as a Freudian reaction formation, cursing the world for his own faults.

    What we never get to see is the source of his character flaw.