Shakespeare alert: Seattle Shakespeare Company is presenting their debut of the Bard’s rarely-staged drama, Timon of Athens.
SSC is known for exploring the relevance of Shakespeare’s work in today’s political and social arenas. According to director John Kazanjian, “The play is about the 1%. It’s about the maldistribution of wealth. One thematic way of looking at the play is the monetization of human relationships.” Karl Marx wrote that it “shed light on the nature and amoral power of money.”
In this rarely-staged drama of a generous individual undone by false friendships, human selfishness is the star. As the play begins, the popular and wealthy Timon has numerous friends and gives away gifts and money freely. He hosts lavish banquets, attended by nearly all the main characters. When the money runs out, he naturally turns to those same friends for help. One by one they refuse, and the carefree philanthropist turns into a reclusive misanthrope who rejects all of humanity. After stumbling upon a cache of gold, Timon now faces a choice: return to his previous life or choose another path.
Kazanjian was repulsed by the way that women are portrayed in the play. “It’s a man’s world, and all the power is with the men. So I wanted to turn that on its head.”
In all of Shakespeare’s plays, Timon of Athens has the fewest lines for female designated characters – only 11. In fact, there are no female-identified characters in “Timon of Athens,” with the exception of some whores. What makes this production even more unique is Kazanjian’s cross-gender casting in two key roles. For the most powerful characters in the play, he cast Mary Ewald as Timon and Julie Briskman as Alcibiades, an Athenian military general.
Also featured in the cast are Michael Winters as the cynical philosopher Apemantus, and Peter Crook as the loyal steward Flavius, in addition to nine other actors in the ensemble.
“Timon of Athens” is one of Shakespeare’s most difficult plays to date as there is no record of a performance in Shakespeare’s lifetime. “Timon” and “The Merchant of Venice” are the two Shakespeare plays that primarily deal with tangled relationships to money. (SSC will be presenting “The Merchant of Venice” in March.)
Timon is Shakespeare’s only central character who has no significant relationships—no spouse, no children, no parents, no family. The play was originally grouped with the tragedies, but some scholars prefer to call it one of the “problem” plays. Legend has it that Shakespeare himself took the role of the Poet, who has the fifth-largest line count in the play.
The play’s date is uncertain, Written at about the same time as “King Lear,” “Timon” shares some of its sense of disillusionment, but is the least known and most rarely performed Shakespeare play. Its date has been placed in the period 1605–1608, most likely 1606.
Although seldom performed theatrically, “Timon” was produced for TV as part of the BBC Television Shakespeare series in 1981 with Jonathan Pryce as Timon. The production, directed by Jonathan Miller was performed in Jacobean dress rather than in Greek costuming.
“Timon” played once on Broadway, in 1993, with Brian Bedford in the title role. A production at The Public Theater revived the play in February 2011 with Richard Thomas in the lead role, citing it as a play for the Great Recession. In 1963, Duke Ellington was commissioned to compose original music for the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s first production of “Timon of Athens,” set in the roaring 1920s.
Despite its few theatrical productions, there are many references to the play in great literature. Charlotte Brontë includes an allusion to Timon in “Villette” (1853). Charles Dickens alludes to Timon in “Great Expectations” (1861), when Wopsle moves to London to pursue a life in the theatre. Thomas Hardy alludes to “Timon” in his short story, “The Three Strangers” (1883). And Vladimir Nabokov borrowed the title for his novel “Pale Fire” (1962) from “Timon”
Herman Melville considered “Timon” to be among the most profound of Shakespeare’s plays. In 1850, he wrote that “Shakespeare is not “a mere man of ‘Richard-the-Third’ humps, and ‘Macbeth’ daggers,” but rather “it is those deep far-away things in him; those occasional flashings-forth of the intuitive Truth in him; those short, quick probings at the very axis of reality:–these are the things that make Shakespeare, Shakespeare.”
This is Kazanjian’s directing debut at SSC. He and his wife Mary [Ewald] have run New City Theatre in Seattle for more than 30 years. Their work has been centered on language-based plays that engage in socio-political issues, as well as the work of form-breaking experimental playwrights. Kazanjian and the company have recently begun exploring Shakespeare’s works.
Timon of Athens runs through February 4th at Center Theater in Seattle Center; tickets range from $25-$55. Discount tickets are available for groups of ten or more. Seattle Shakespeare Company box office (206) 733-8222 or online here.
Julie Briskman (Alcibiades)
Peter Crook (Flavius)
Brace Evans (Ensemble)
Mary Ewald (Timon)
Jason Marr (Ensemble)
Kevin McKeon (Ensemble)
Peter Dylan O’Connor (Ensemble)
Arjun Pande (Ensemble)
Cullen Ryan (Ensemble)
Jason Sanford (Ensemble)
Kerry Skalsky (Ensemble)
Michael Winters (Apemantus)
Alexandra Varriano (Ensemble).
John Kazanjian (Director)
Shawn Ketchum Johnson (scenic design)
Jocelyne Fowler (costume design)
Lindsay Smith (lighting design)
Robertson Witmer (sound design)