Corruption, Greed, Evil Bankers, Swindlers, Underwater Mortgages, Unpaid Debts and a Devastating Recession: Does This Sound Familiar?





Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News.

Timon of Athens
Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey
Drew University
Madison, New Jersey

In the opening scene of Timon Athens, set in the late nineteenth century, a wildly-dressed prostitute with flaming red hair piled high on top of her head, at a carnival with a dazzling string of bring lights over her, curtsies towards the audience.  “Athens: greed and corruption,” she wails and the play begins.

The play is an allegorical tale of Timon, a philanthropist in ancient Athens who gives away much of what he has and is then sued by dozens of bankers to get what they can before he hands out everything.  He turns to his friends for money to pay his debts and they shun him. The bankers are corrupt, the businessmen greedy, swindlers are on every street corner, the spending is excessive, everybody is deeply in debt, you imagine that unemployment is high and the government seems unable to help anybody.  Chaos reigns.

Does this sound familiar?

Timon of Athens is one of William Shakespeare’s rarely staged works, but it is being presented at the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey, and was produced last winter at the New York Public Theater, because is has such a loud and overt connection to the recession-riddled United States today.

The work, which opened last Saturday, has always been labeled one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays.”  It has not been staged that often because it seemed like a first draft, an unfinished play.  It was also charged by scholars that Shakespeare wrote the play with someone else, most probably Thomas Middleton.  The play then has two voices, not just the Bard’s..

The Shakespeare Theater has trimmed some of the dysfunctional plot, ejected slow-moving scenes, created a mercurial 1880s atmosphere, built a marvelous cave on stage, added a vaudevillian/Brechtian touch and best of all, found a superb Timon, gifted actor Greg Jackson, who gives a dazzling performance as the noble and disappointed Athenian do-gooder.

The play opens with Timon hosting a lavish banquet where he gives away money and jewelry to all the revelers and passersby, rich and poor, telling all that giving away your money to help others is the right thing to do.  Nobody turns him down and everybody fawns over their new best friend.  Later, these same folks turn out for a banquet he throws after his money has run out.  This time he throws stones and water at them and they run from his wrath.

Soon after that, penniless Timon flees Athens as his creditors pursue him.  He finds refuge in a large mountain cave laced with beds, ladders, walls, parapets and an extremely authentic interior.  The floor of the cave is covered with chunks of small, jagged rocks and hundreds of crumpled up pages of old newspapers.  He lives there in his underwear, his face dirty and his sweaty hair dripping over his forehead.  The world that loved him when he had money shunned him when he had none.  Back in town, well-dressed and refined bankers went after all of his assets with a vengeance.

In the second half of the play, written early in the seventeenth century (it is presented as one ninety-minute drama), his old friends come to visit him at his mountain lair, but he turns them away with lengthy scathing speeches tearing mankind apart.  He seems determined to stay a cave bound recluse until the end, when crowds of Athenians trudge up the hill to beg him to come back after they discover he is wealthy once again.  The finale is a stunner.

The heart and soul of Timon of Athens is Timon, played by Jackson.  He portrays the Athenian as a simple, well-intentioned champion of the down-trodden at the start of the play, handing out money to all with a happy smile on his face.  Then, when he loses his fortune and is hounded by creditors, he turns into a hateful capitalist, angry at society, the warped bankers, greedy merchants and everybody who lives in Athens.  He not only sets the stage on fire with his scalding tirades, but uses fluid body language to convey his pain and emotional decline.  From the first moment he is on stage, you feel for Timon. You can’t take your eyes off of him.

Director Brian Crowe has done a surprisingly good job of turning this practically lost Shakespeare work into an impressive play.  The story moves along at a rapid pace and the director gets fine supporting performances from John Seidman as Timon’s servant Flavius, Bruce Cromer as his friend Apemantus, Brent Harris as Alcibiades, an army captain, Geoffrey Owens, a poet, Eric Hoffman, a painter and Timandra, a prostitute.

Now, Timon of Athens has one big problem that is evident to all as soon as the story starts to unfold.  Who would be noble enough, or stupid enough, to walk around a city and give away all of his money to strangers?  Nobody would do that.  It doesn’t ring true.  The play is saved, though, because director Crow very quickly turns the story into an allegory.  The audience accepts it and the play soars.

Timon of Athens is no Shakespearean giant, like Othello or Hamlet, or a delicious romp, like A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  It does not have a lot of subplots and moves slowly at times.  This staging in Madison is a winner, though.  They have polished the drama up nicely and turned it into a gem.

Ironically, the play opened just after U.S. unemployment climbed to 9.2%, the housing market plunged and depressed economists wrung their hands yet again. The more things change over three thousand years, the more they remain the same.

PRODUCTION: Producers: Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey. Sets: Brian Crowe and Brian Ruggaber, Costumes: Pamela Prior, Lighting: Andrew Hungerford, Music: Peter Fleming, Sound: Karin Graybash. Directed by Brian Crowe.

Bruce Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.


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