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Thursday, June 1, 2017

Folger's 'Timon of Athens,' a dark tale

Ian Merrill Peakes is surrounded by creditors in Timon of Athens now at the Folger/Photo by Theresa Wood

If this is a difficult William Shakespeare play, those watching at the Folger Theatre never let on, for they sat in rapt suspension on the edges of their seats, glued to the manipulations and greed of "friends" on stage who surround Timon of Athens

Timon is the sun around whom mankind swirls until it doesn't.

By a series of stealthy, slow motions, the evildoers abandon their money source, Timon, when they learn they cannot extract more from him who gives to them willfully, while he ignores warning signs from the only truthful person of the lot, his faithful steward, Flavius, who observes Timon's soaring debts.

"Every man has his fault, and honesty is his," claims Lucullus, one of the users. 

 And then what? 

Will his pals dole out a wee bit to help their friend survive after all he has given to them? 

Not on their lives.

“Has friendship such a faint and milky heart, It turns in less than two nights?” a servant asks. 

When truth finally arrives as Flavius foretold, Timon cannot take it any more and escapes to the forest to seek solace, find answers, and berate himself, all the while experiencing increasing enmity of all that is mankind.

"Timon will to the woods, where he shall find
Th’unkindest beast more kinder than mankind," he says

But even in solitude, in the woods, his pessimism prevails to envelop nature's beauty which Timon is unable to see, consumed by his detest of all things living. In his new environment he projects man's dishonesty and deceit upon his surroundings.

Has it come to this?

 Ian Merrill Peakes stars in Timon of Athens now at the Folger/Photo by Theresa Wood

At Opera Lafayette last night I actually met a misanthrope like Timon!  One I never would have recognized had I had not seen the play and read more about the man.  I was stunned to realize these people actually exist. (Call me naive.) She, a scientist for EPA (is it any wonder?), who said to a stranger she could never see a play again because all human beings are the same, lowlifes and cunning, who take her down.  ("Down"?  Further than she is?)  

Back to "make believe" at the Folger: Robert Richmond directs Ian Merrill Peakes as Timon in a knockout performance.

The play's futuristic, colored lighting in strings of squares and rectangles (by Andrew Griffin) outline the dark, stark set (by Tony Cisek) which is designed like a cold, bizarre space ship, the inside of a tomb, lacking any color save the blue coats (the tomb's quilted linings) worn by unearthly beings on the make, occupiers of the premises. 

Haunting sounds full of tension and edge (by Matt Otto)  echo throughout this underground aboveground.

Why host one of the master's most unpopular plays? An unfinished play, too.  It's not all about the money.

This town is full of Shakespeare lovers, and the near sellouts of the remaining play nights are proof.

According to program notes, Timon has gained traction in the last 20 years. Shakespeare and his likely collaborator, Thomas Middleton, wrote it probably between 1605 and 1606 about the time King James I and the upper classes were spending wildly, heavily in debt, when Shakespeare was working on Anthony and Cleopatra.

Wikipedia says there is no evidence Timon was performed during Shakespeare's lifetime (1564-1616). 

Shakespeare partially derived his tale from Plutarch's Lives, one of his favorite sources, which says Timon from Athens had a reputation as a misanthropist. His father was a rich man who bestowed gifts upon friends who left when the money ran out, and Timon found himself working in the fields.

Supposedly, Timonium, Maryland up the road about an hour, was named by a woman in mourning after her wealthy landowner of a husband died at a young age.  The town is the burial site of Vice President Spiro Agnew (1918-1996) who served under President Richard Nixon before Agnew resigned in disgrace, another tragedy,  but I digress.

Notable authors who have utilized Timon are Thomas Hardy, Karl Marx, Charlotte Bronte, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Dickens, and Vladimir Nabokov who used a portion for his book title:
"The moon's an arrant thief,
And her pale fire she snatches from the sun," Timon says.

 Herman Melville considered Timon "to be among the most profound of Shakespeare's plays," according to Wikipedia. That it is!

Also starring are Louis Butelli, Aliyah Caldwell, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, John Floyd, Amanda Forstrom, Sean Fri, Eric Hissom, Andhy Mendez, Antoineet Robinson, Michael Dix Thomas, and Kathryn Tkel.

Members of the creative team include Mariah Hale, costumes; Francesca Talenti, projection; Michele Osherow, resident dramaturg; Diane Healy, production stage manager; Megan Ball, assistant stage manager, Joe Isenberg, fight director, Michele Osherow, resident dramaturg, and Janet Alexander Griffin, artistic producer.

This is the last of the Folger's productions for the 2016-17 series. Anthony and Cleopatra opens next year's season on October 10, 2017 under Mr. Richmond's direction.

What: Timon of Athens

When: Now through June 11, 2017

Folger Theatre, 201 East Capitol Street, S. E. Washington, D.C. 20003

Tickets: Buy online, by phone (at 202-544-7077 from 12 to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday with extended hours on performance days), or at the box office (with the same hours as phone service). Tickets start at $25 with discounts for groups, students, seniors, military, and educators.

Metro station: Capitol South or Union Station

For more information: 202-544-4600 or

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