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Adapted and directed by Anton Dudley from a play by William Shakespeare
At the Metro Café to Oct. 14
Onstage coke-snorting and an offhand homoerotic incident or two are probably among the inevitable consequences of setting Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens in the greed-is-good America of the 1980s. So let us report, in the interest of relieving suspense, that Michael Kahn’s Shakespeare Theatre production tucks both gratuities efficiently into a single moment in the play’s first half. Let us further report, by way of hinting at the production’s energetic satirical style, that said moment involves a fluff-haired hustler, a boy band with a disturbing resemblance to New Kids on the Block, and the actor Andrew Long, upholstered in one of several excruciating faux-animal ensembles that establish him as one of the play’s villains.
Kahn’s interpretation, as some will have gathered by this point, isn’t precisely nostalgic about the years of Ronald Reagan and Duran Duran. It is, however, remarkably well-disposed toward the play, a fierce and unforgiving chronicle of excess and extremis whose merits or lack thereof have divided critics for centuries. Timon ranks among Shakespeare’s least-performed tragedies, and the various arguments over why tend to center on complaints about uneven verse and unpolished speeches, sketchily drawn connections and easy black-and-white dichotomies, dropped narrative stitches and characters who wander in and out of the play for no discernible reason. Initial questions about divided authorship have given way to a consensus that Shakespeare put the play aside without finishing itthat its imperfections are those of a draft document. What the academic assessments tend to brush grudgingly past, though, is the fact that Timon lands on an audience like a slap. Tell people they’re insincere, money-grubbing whores, and they’ll sit up and pay attention.
And that, in short, is Timon’s assessment of the human race at large. (To a degree, it’s Shakespeare’s, as well; author and character differ only in how soon they recognize the failing, how universal they believe it to be, how harshly they judge it.) Timon, lucky and wealthy and generous to a fault, arrives at said conclusion after his fortunes collapse and his friends abandon him. Shakespeare comes to the point rather sooner, roughing out the play’s arc in the painter-vs.-poet banter that opens the first scene: “When Fortune in her shift and change of mood spurns down her late beloved, all his dependents…let him slip.” To underscore the warning, the playwright sends up another flag in the person of Apemantus, a cranky philosopher with a tongue like an adder and a sharp eye for the insincerity of Timon’s hangers-on: “I doubt whether their hearts be worth the sums that are given for them.”
That Timon can’t see what’s plain to everyone else is one of the more interesting things about the play; his first-act obtuseness is a curious mix of nobility and naiveté, a kind of blind self-indulgence (he’s always jonesing for the rush he gets from being generous) that brings him down toward the others’ level, makes him less tragic hero than tragically human. Philip Goodwin plays the party-loving, glad-handing, charity-dispensing Timon as a kindlier but not much classier version of the ’80s-vintage Donald Trump, an open-hearted kind of guy who expresses his good intentions in showy displays of largess that look from the outside like crass, needy cries for attention. This Timon, at least, is precisely the sort of man who would attract leeches instead of friendsand might, subconsciously, want it that way.
Such a characterization adds a welcome layer of ambiguity to a play that mostly lacks ita creature of extremes, Timon pretty much runs at top speed in one direction throughout the first half, then goes slightly mad and runs at top speed in the oppositewithout really adding much reason to care about Timon’s eventual end. This production’s considerable impact is mostly visceraland visual, the product of Walt Spangler’s sleek sets and Elizabeth Hope Clancy’s hideously on-target costumes. Timon’s Athens becomes a grid of steel-and-glass skyscrapers furnished in hot colors and banks of stock-ticker screens; his second-act forest refuge is transformed into a junkyard littered with blown-out television sets and the carcass of a Jaguar. The denizens of the former world wear loud aqua shirts and skinny knit ties, big-shouldered suits, and nasty rattail braids; Timon, in the latter, scuttles about in the rags of the homeless, head wrapped in a filthy cloth and feet wrapped in plastic shopping bags.
There are dramatic riches scattered among the design flash, though: Goodwin is always outstanding in roles that require the sort of feeble good-heartedness Timon exhibits in the first half, and he makes a surprisingly commanding presence in the second, when the character’s generosity has turned to all-consuming misanthropy. Ted van Griethuysen’s particular brand of haughty scorn fits the philosopher Apemantus neatly, and for once the actor disappears almost entirely into the part; at his first entrance, last season’s Lear is all but unrecognizable in his ruffian’s rags. The reliable ensemble player Emery Battis, in a larger and more grateful part than usual, does well by the profound distress that makes Timon’s steward a better man than Timon’s social peers. Ralph Cosham, corrupt chair of a Senate committee, builds an ugly picture of venal authority in a short but crucial scene.
That scene, most clearly among several that sketch out the subplot involving the captain Alcibiades and his eventual redemption of Athens, exemplifies the thoughtfulness of Kahn’s approach. Timon is a play about obligations and how we fail in them, about debts and how we dishonor them, and nowhere are those ideas more forcefully expressed than in the exchange between Cosham’s senator, sitting in judgment of a soldier who has killed another man in defense of his honor, and Alcibiades, arguing for mercy on his subordinate’s behalf. The confrontation turns on the Senate’s unwillingness to condone in singular the very kind of killing it has commissioned wholesale: “He has done fair service, and slain in fight many of your enemies,” Alcibiades cries in his friend’s defense.
The Senate responds not just with cold justice, but with contempt; the soldier is put to death, and Alcibiades is banished on pain of execution. A harsh picture, yes, but stilted and one-dimensional, a mere plot device that lays the groundwork for Alcibiades’ armed revoltexcept that Kahn has cast African-American actors in all the soldiers’ roles. Suddenly, the scene speaks to a host of very real, very contemporary uglinesses: the racial and socioeconomic inequities of Vietnam-era draft policies, for instance, and the lingering bigotry that denies basic benefits to the very workers who take on the scut work we’re too proud to do ourselves. Timon, the character, bewails a direct and particular kind of ingratitude; Timon, the play, speaks timelessly about these larger degrees of selfishness. In that respect, at least, this messy bit of dramaturgy is still Shakespeare at the height of his prescient powers.
If it weren’t for the dildo, it would be tempting to argue that Romeo & Juliatric represented the less aggressively updated of last week’s two Shakespeare offerings. Certainly it’s the less reverently adapted: Cherry Red’s cracked-out revision of Romeo & Juliet moves the action to Washington, turning the Montagues and Capulets into feuding dot-commers and making acres of broadly comic hay with the notion “You’re never too old to die young.”
The result is a kind of MAD TV take on drama’s biggest moving targetand a reasonably smart one at that; Anton Dudley’s revisions have actors stepping out of character to chide each other for foreshadowing too heavily, for playing to ethnic stereotypes, and for generally hewing too closely to dramatic tradition. There are musical numbers (mostly lifted from West Side Story and bastardized to a howlingly funny fare-thee-well), vigorously choreographed girl-fights in the very best Smackdown tradition, and a prancing, glitter-dusted sissy who’s merely the most deadly of several dead-on swipes at the high-concept devices employed recently by some of Washington’s favorite directors. Spoiling these parodies with specifics wouldn’t be any fun; suffice it to say that not Washington City Paper opera critic Joe Banno, not Joe Calarco, not even Michael Kahn escapes with dignity unpunctured.
And as you might expect from a company that cheerfully tallies in each program the number of deaths it has staged to date (64 and counting), there is a good deal of fake blood to accompany the variously gruesome ends met by Mercutio, Tybalt, Paris, and the rest, who mostly get new names to go with their new environs. (Tybalt becomes Cyball-Buster, largely because he’s now a girl.) Producer Ian Allen thoughtfully provides Hefty bags before each performance to patrons in the front row, who are then faced with the choice of (a) not wearing them and risking faux-bloodstained clothing or (b) wearing them and looking like faux-bloodstained California Raisins.
But perhaps I have not done full justice to Romeo & Juliatric’s central gimmick, which finds a pair of older-than-usual actors cast as the star-crossed lovers. Dudley’s textual face-lift pegs Romeo (Phil Sawicki) and Juliet (Rusty Clauss) as octogenarianswhich doesn’t throw the play’s power dynamics as far out of whack as you’d expect. Allowing for the general broadness of the performances here, Juliet’s run-in with Lord Capulet (Kevin Blomstrom) over her unwillingness to marry Paris is still as bracing as it ever wasand ridiculous though it may be to look for social relevance in such an irreverent production, both that scene and Dudley’s new ending have something to say about the way we as a culture tend to treat our elderly. (Would that all smartass teenagers could be dealt with the way Juliet deals with her asshole relatives.) Throughout, Sawicki and Clauss are troupers, occasionally slowing down to let a glimpse of the play’s original power shine through the foolishness, but usually playing gamely along with jokes that land mostly at their expense.
In one of those hilariously misbegotten musical numbers, they singrather sweetly, if rather tunelesslyabout running away to “Florida! Florida!” The number is set to the melody we usually associate with West Side Story’s “Somewhere,” and there is a lyric about honeymooning in Niagara. There is also, naturally, a pharmaceutical rhyme associated with that latter destinationand the folks at Cherry Red, bless their sordid little hearts, don’t seem to mind at all if you see it coming. CP