If you’re looking for a play about a man of high standing who falls from grace and spends his latter days crazed and in the forest, the natural choice is one of William Shakespeare’s greatest works, “King Lear.”
But wait — there’s another play from the same era and with the same basic plot line, one of William Shakespeare’s lesser works: “Timon of Athens.”
Whereas “Lear” is a standout, “Timon” is convoluted and disjointed — did they use the word “mess” in Elizabethan English? – and for a long time, scholars suspected that Shakespeare had never finished writing it.
The current theory is, what you see in the script is what you get – the total package. But you can’t necessarily see it on stage; “Timon” is not generally produced. So the “Timon of Athens’ being presented in Center City by the Philadelphia Artists’ Collective is an opportunity. While it’s far from the dressy production that “Timon” may need to help mask its pedestrian script, this “Timon” is at least a clearly told tale.
That’s because it is a triumph of editing by Dan Hodge, a co-founding artistic director of the troupe, the director of “Timon,” and a highly visible actor on stages around town. Hodge has put much thought into the play. All of Shakespeare’s plays are edited to some degree – modern audiences wouldn’t sit through the whole of the Bard’s musings – and some need only a light and judicious touch. Hodge had to make major decisions, though, with “Timon.” He has made the play lucid.
If only we were getting a more complete theatrical experience from the production, he’d have the entire package. The Collective produces plays at Broad Street Ministry, the church across from the Kimmel Center, and an increasingly popular spot for edgy theater. “Timon” uses the design in the performance space the church offers – several entrance and exit walkways and doors – but that’s about it.
If you can remember a bare-bones production so basic that, say, a simple strip of fabric or a stylized tree was all it took to conjure the magic, then you know how less on a stage can actually be more. But “Timon” is not the sort of play that yields that sort of magic with only sparse stagecraft – and in the second half, in the woods, the pieces of wall hanging that serve as forest are really only wall hangings serving as wall hangings. Characters come and go in the large empty space framed on three sides by the audience, and it seems at times as though this “Timon” is more a staged reading than a full production.
With 14 cast members in Hodge’s version, “Timon” is a commitment right there, and I realize that a richer staging would mean a bigger budget. Still, even though the two banquets called for in the script are done onlong tables and with a nice-looking spread, they too could use some set design that hints at the sort of digs Timon occupies as his false friends bail on him.
They do so because Timon, generous to a fault with everyone he knows, suddenly (too suddenly) has debts all over Athens. He has no more to give to his pals who, in turn, will not help him in his time of need. So into the woods he goes, eschewing all that is human and civil. Christopher Coucill’s Timon is a cheery fellow whose turn-about to become a hate-spewing hermit seems natural in his performance. Those playing his many friends are called on to treat him with admiration publicly and with private mocking, and the best of these is Mark Knight, whose expressive eyes seem so sincere when he’s looking directly at Timon and so false when he’s not.
Timon’s steward, Flavius, is his only true friend, and he’s played with honest empathy by Nathan Foley. The multi-talented Charlotte Northeast, as a philosopher who is also Shakespeare’s truth-teller in this version, becomes a huge figure here; even Coucill’s straight-on Timon shrinks when she takes the stage – such as the stage is.
TIMON OF ATHENS runs through April 20 at Broad Street Ministry, Broad Street between Spruce and Pine Streets. Tickets: $20. www.philartistscollective.org.