Timon of Athens is one of Shakespeare’s least performed plays. As far as we know, it was never presented during his lifetime. The work is remarkably hard to pigeonhole for it is part satire, part morality play and part tragedy (often echoing moments in King Lear). Seattle Shakespeare and director John Kazanjian smartly tackle this challenging project by laser focusing on the play’s language and stocking the cast with skilled actors from top to bottom.
The talented Mary Ewald as Timon anchors the play. She opens the evening with an original written preface (with a few lines borrowed from Hamlet) laying out the central theme of the evening: many ills can accompany money and power. In his director notes, Kazanjian observes, “The play is about the 1% …and about the monetization of human relationships.” Nearly every actor will comment upon the perils of wealth, often delivering lines directly to the audience, greatly helping focus Shakespeare’s somewhat cumbersome script.
Timon begins the play as an overwhelmingly benevolent friend, handing out favors left and right to nearly all who visit his estate. Poets, painters, jewelers and servants all profit from his gifts. Timon’s generosity reaches a peak at a rave-like party he hosts for all. Two characters lay out the warning notes of the tragedy soon to befall our hero. The cynic, Apemantus played by a wonderfully dry Michael Winters, questions the “friendships” Timon seems to be gathering through his wealth. Peter Crook brings an impressive depth to his portrayal of Flavius, the concerned steward who loyally serves Timon throughout. With eyes agog, he worriedly informs the audience that Timon is living far beyond his means and will soon have to face up to his dire situation. He observes simply, “We have seen better days.”
Ewald’s performance kicks into a higher gear when Timon learns of the curse of money felt most when lost. He is devastated when he discovers that none of his friends will come to his aid when he owns up to his financial ruin. A highpoint in the evening is reached with the eerie banquet Timon serves his followers as a revenge for their treachery.
The second half of the play finds Timon living alone and realizing hard truths in a barren unforgiving landscape. Here, a very lengthy dialogue between the cynical Apemantus and Timon could have easily slowed the production, but the skillful work of Winters and Ewald helps keep the show moving.
When Timon accidently stumbles upon a box of gold while simply searching for a bare root to eat, his world seems to turn upside down. In realizing the utter worthlessness of his new found gold he concludes “The unkindest beast [is] more kinder than mankind. Black white, foul fair, wrong right, base noble, old young, coward valiant.” In a Lear like plea Timon calls out “Ha, you gods! Why this?” Ewald’s work in these scenes is startlingly focused and persuasive.
It is up to a hard fighting Athenian Captain, Alcibiades (the talented Julie Briskman) to establish a new order in Greece and bring the proceedings to a somewhat sorrowful peace declaring, “Let the bells strike!” The audience departs to the strains of Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold.”
Lindsay Smith is responsible for the highly effective lighting, helping move the play from its celebratory opening giddiness to the darker tones later developed. Set designer Shawn Ketchum Johnson gets a myriad of effects from a carpet he lays out on the majority of the stage.
Timon of Athens plays through February 4 at the Center Theater, right in the middle of the Seattle Center, 305 West Harrison Street. For more ticket information go to www.seattleshakespeare.org or call 206-733-8222.