If "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" seems like a recent phenomenon, consider the Shakespeare Theatre's superb production of "Timon of Athens."
Greed is timeless, we are reminded by director Michael Kahn's eye-popping, modern-dress staging of this rarely produced Shakespearean tragedy. Judging from this striking effort, it's long overdue. Kahn's production marks the play's debut in Washington, a city whose influence-peddling mentality makes it a perfect match.
Set in the boom years of the 1980s, this sleekly designed interpretation presents Timon as the kind of overnight corporate success story lauded on the covers of magazines. In fact, in our first view of Philip Goodwin's Timon, his face is gracing a giant blow-up of a business magazine cover on the walls of his suite of his unspecified corporate headquarters.
"The play stages better than it reads," critic Harold Bloom contends in his book, "The Invention of the Human." Indeed, "Timon of Athens" cries out for broad concept staging. The thin plot traces the downfall of the title character, a wealthy Athenian who gives away his entire fortune in an attempt to win friends and influence people. But once penury sets in, both friends and influence desert him, and Timon becomes a misanthropic hermit whose hatred of humanity includes himself.
"Timon" was never staged in Shakespeare's lifetime. Scholars suspect he was dissatisfied with the text, which may have been his answer to Ben Jonson's comic satire, "Volpone." There are certainly reasons for dissatisfaction - chiefly, the lack of credible character development. The supporting characters are little more than foils for the protagonist, and Timon himself is something of a mystery. We know nothing about his family or background, and there is precious little to prepare us for the abrupt change he undergoes halfway through the play.
Goodwin appears to have based his character's sudden personality shift on a comment made to Timon by the character of Apemantus, a cynical philosopher: "The middle of humanity thou never knewest, but the extremity of both ends." In keeping with this, Goodwin opts for a cocky, all-or-nothing Timon, a man totally lacking in temperance or moderation. In the first half he gives his cronies the shirt off his back; in the second, he rages against mankind for leaving him shirtless.
Set designer Walt Spangler and costume designer Elizabeth Hope Clancy have found an ideal, witty visual vocabulary to convey Timon's fall. Before intermission, Timon and his impeccably tailored buddies occupy sleek but impersonal glass-and-steel quarters, whether office, a health club or nightclub. After intermission, when Timon supposedly retreats to a cave, Spangler and Clancy turn him into a homeless man, his clothes dirty and torn, his feet shrouded in plastic Safeway bags, and his "cave" a wrecked black Jaguar in an urban dump.
If this sounds overstated, remember that though the play is a tragedy, it may also have been intended as satire. This would explain the caricature-like nature of Timon's three closest friends, played by a well-fed, country-clubbish David Sabin; a preening, effete John Emmert and a pony-tailed, cocaine-snorting Andrew Long - each the embodiment of a New Yorker cartoon.
One actor, however, manages to flesh out a thin supporting role. Frequent Shakespeare Theatre leading man Ted van Griethuysen has completely transformed himself as churlish Apemantus. First seen handing out leaflets in rumpled professorial garb, this actor is portrayed as a scruffy Marxist intellectual. (It's a fitting choice, since this was Marx's favorite play.) Unlike most of the others, van Griethuysen's character appears to have a life outside the play.
But it is the overall impression made by this production, more than any one performance, that makes one of Shakespeare's lesser works succeed as a biting commentary on money, power and politics. In his 15 years at the helm of the Shakespeare Theatre, artistic director Kahn has mastered other relatively obscure Shakespeare plays (including "King John" and "Henry VI," both starring Goodwin). Director and actor have scored another triumph in this stunning "Timon of Athens."
'Timon of Athens
Where: Shakespeare Theatre, 450 7th Street, N.W., Washington
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays
Wednesdays and most Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, and noon Oct 11. Through Oct 22.
Tickets: $14.25 - $62.