GREENBELT – I was a student in my early 20s on a balmy July afternoon at the University of Freiburg in Germany’s wine-growing district. My professor, the appropriately named Dr. Sommer (“summer”), began lecturing on Shakespeare’s views of poets and painters as expressed in the Bard’s lesser-known work “Timon of Athens.”
There Shakespeare writes of how “poesie is as a gown,” while paintings “demonstrate . . . quick blows of fortunes, more pregnantly than words.” I was thus delighted finally to see this rarely-performed Shakespearean work, now being staged in our area by the Rude Mechanicals at Greenbelt Arts Center.
By offering this production, the Rude Mechanicals give us unusual insights into Shakespeare that we seldom obtain otherwise. “Timon of Athens” has an unusually modern flavor: the lead character, Timon, is a spendthrift who lavishes money on supposed friends above his means and is a compulsive shopper for art and other items which turn out to be superfluous. He expends all his credit and finds himself mired in overwhelming debt. When his friends do not help him in his time of need, he becomes a “misanthrope” of a stripe which would make Molière’s famous misanthropic character pale in comparison!
The Rude Mechanicals, seizing on these economic parallels with our own time, take the theme and extend it into other areas of modern life. The talented director Joshua Engel, who portrayed Shylock several months back in “The Merchant of Venice,” writes in the program notes: “Perhaps it’s too on-the-nose to perform ‘Timon’ in 2018 (when) people can be so selfish and cruel” in our polarized political environment.
Possibly to avoid the feeling of limiting the play’s themes only to our specific moment, the Mechanicals use sets reflecting back to “the urban decay of the late 1970s,” quoting the director again, and employ costumes ranging from a golden disco suit to punk. At one point in the play, Shakespeare writes: “Timon will to the woods, where he shall find the unkindest beast . . . kinder than mankind.” Engel and the Rude Mechanicals convey this dark portion of the play by placing Timon in the concrete jungle, in a city strewn with garbage bags, Sid Vicious music, and graffiti written upon the walls. The latter pays tribute to recently-deceased local graffiti artist Cool “Disco” Dan, whose stylistics have been adapted here to the milieu of the play. Similarly, the graffiti message “Surrender Dorothy” was once prominently spray-painted on a bridge near the Oz-like Mormon/LDS Temple in Kensington.
In “Timon,” in tribute, we read on the spray-painted set “Surrender Alcibiades,” referring to a military character in the play that, like Timon, has reasons to be bitter about humanity.
Engel’s version of “Timon” is an abridged production, no doubt because the complete text of this Shakespearean work meanders to the point at which some scholars feel the play may be incomplete or “contaminated” by other versions and influences.
Yet, the players are loyal to Shakespearean dialogue, with the exception of a stray reference by Timon to “stagflation,” bane of the 1970s!
This dark play as performed by the Rude Mechanicals also has much comedy, some of it physical. A favorite scene is when the parasites who think Timon’s fortune has been restored return for a “banquet.” They are served merely lukewarm water, which Timon precedes to splash on them. A more subtle example of humor is seen early in the play, when still-prosperous Timon and his guests socialize as in a cocktail party with an easy-listening instrumental of Burt Bacharach’s “That’s What Friends Are for” playing in the background. That’s what friends are for? Timon might well ask.
Ever a friend of assigning roles beyond gender boundaries, director Engel has cast Melissa Schick in the role of Timon, in which she excels: she brilliantly embodies Timon’s transition from all-around “nice guy” to steaming and fuming misanthrope. Two new actors who stand out for praise are Wes Dennis (as the Poet) and Leah DeLano (as the Painter), characters who discuss how these two art forms relate one to another. Peter Eichman is an outstanding Alciabiades, whose righteous rage at injustice at the whim of the Athenian Senate is intended to parallel Timon’s mistreatment at the hands of his fellow Athenians. (Alciabiades, it should be noted, is an actual personage, having been a military leader during the Peloponnesian Wars who changed allegiance from the Athenian to the Spartan side, and then back again.)
Shakespeare’s “Timon of Athens” is a bit of a history play, a bit of a comedy, and a bit of a tragedy, making it difficult to classify. Isaac Asimov’s “Guide to Shakespeare,” for example, resolves this issue by placing it among plays with a Greek setting. The Rude Mechanical’s production shows us insightfully that it may also be ordered into a separate category: gallows humor, also demonstrating the relevance of Shakespeare to our own time. Those wishing to see a rarely-staged Shakespeare play with a highly experimental interpretation would do well to attend “Timon of Athens,” playing at Greenbelt Arts Center through Sept. 8.