Yesterday, I had the pleasure of seeing a production of Shakespeare's Timon of Athens at Cal State Fullerton. I was excited going in, because this was one of the last two Shakespeare plays I'd never seen before (see Denny & Tom's Shakespeare Quest). We often hear the suggestion that perhaps some of Shakespeare's rarely performed works are rarely performed for a reason. But in my experience so far, I've yet to see a Shakespeare play that lacked potential for good theatre (even though particular productions may not always realize the fullest potential), and this was no exception. Timon of Athens presents an engaging, though bleak, story about a generous man's fall from wealth to poverty in both gold and friendship. It contains some good speeches, a powerful dramatic character in Timon, a good "fool" in the philosopher Apemantus, some funny bawdy scenes, and some thought-provoking plot and character turns -- in short, all the essential Shakespeare elements. The story is unusual and singularly bleak, with Timon ending up a bitter misanthrope, spurning all friendship (even when genuine), living practically as an animal, and leaving nothing good to say about humanity. As in Pericles (another fatalistic Shakespeare play), there are no just deserts in this play, but rather a wanton Fate who can treat a good man quite cruelly. Unlike Pericles, Timon has no family or real love in his life to sustain him, and Fate denies him a just resolution. I wonder what may have been going on in Shakespeare's life when he wrote this, that inspired such bleak bitterness. And I wonder what he meant for us to make of it. Unlike the more "classic" tragedies, Timon is not a clear hero undone by an identifiable tragic character flaw. He is a genuinely good man, and his only flaw is being excessively generous and credulous. But when he is ultimately disillusioned and abandoned by his fair-weather friends, he becomes excessive in his misanthropy.
Nonetheless, the tale is a fascinating one, especially if the production is good, and the CSU Fullerton production was splendid. Jamison Jones, an accomplished alumni of CSUF, was outstanding in the hefty role of Timon, embodying easy largesse at first, shifting gears to betrayed and outraged in the powerful speech outside the walls (IV:i), and finally degenerating to a near-mad misanthropy, combining natural mastery of the speech with splendid physicality. Director Donn Finn did an excellent job realizing this difficult play. His choice of mostly modern costume and atmosphere worked well: the contemporary martinis, suits, and glamorous party atmosphere was a natural fit for the feast of flatterers. His setting Timon literally waist-deep in a pit in the latter acts of the play, shoveling up dirt and the occasional parsnip, was great imagery. The scenes of the false friends denying the entreaties of Timon's servants, with their hedonistic overtones underscoring their self-centeredness, were brilliant. And the device of using "security camera footage" to fill in a lacuna in the unfinished script worked very well. The other performers (mostly students) were consistently good, notably Zack Kraus as Apemantus and Larry Peters as Flavius (the loyal steward). The quality of the production was enough to make me consider driving all the way out to Fullerton again!