One of my many hobbies is collecting Shakespeare's plays. Not physical texts, mind you -- performances. It's easy to bag a Hamlet or an Othello or a Midsummer Night's Dream. They're put on all the time. Titus Andronicus, now, that's rarer. Or The Two Noble Kinsmen. So I snatch 'em up when I get the chance. I've even seen Troilus and Cressida, and that's a boast most theatergoers cannot make.
So the other night I hurried down to Broad Street Ministry (315 South Broad, here in Philadelphia; right across from the Kimmel Center) to see Timon of Athens. That's a true gem of rarity. And, luckily for me, the Philadelphia Artists' Collective made a show of it.
Plot is never Shakespeare's strong suit and this play was probably a collaboration with Middleton, who was no better, so you shouldn't be put off by this brief synopsis:
The benevolent and fabulously wealthy Timon squanders everything he has by giving presents to his friends, all the while refusing to listen to the warnings of his steward. Debts come due and all his friends prove selfish and false and refuse to help. Into the wilderness he flees, driven not quite mad but so misanthropic as to amount to the same thing. Meanwhile, the general Alcibiades (the only of Timon's friends who has not been bleeding him dry, for he values only military valor) pleads with Athens' senators for the life of a friend, guilty of manslaughter but condemned to death, and is not only turned down but banished. So off he goes to turn the army against the city which has not, incidentally, paid them for some time.
In an ironic twist of fate (the audience laughed at its implausibility), the embittered Timon, while digging for roots, discovers an immense hoard of gold. This he uses to taunt those who, having learned of it, come to ingratiate themselves to him again. After various encounters, he dies and Alcibiades, having conquered Athens, reads his bitter, self-penned epitaph.
To this rather creaky plot, PAC brings several good performances, no bad ones, and one great one. The great performance, fortunately, is by Chris Coucill, who plays Timon. He is excellent in the first part of the play as a genial man who wishes nothing but good for his many friends. His transformation into a ranting misanthrope is convincing. And his howling, vituperative near-madman is just magnificent.
Timon of Athens, apparently, was written shortly before King Lear, and it's hard not to see it as a rough sketch for that play. I mean that as very high praise.
Having dissed the Bard of Avon for his plotting, I should mention a few things he does right in this play. The common element in the two states of this man who experiences the best and worst of human society but nothing of its middle is weakness. In good times, he clings to the illusion that his friends are as virtuous as he and in bad times he clings to his misanthropy even when confronted by altruism. It's also brilliant how he sows evil when wishing will and creates virtue when wishing ill. And of course there's nobody does emotion quite as well as our Billy.
The performances end on April 20. So if you're in a position to buy tickets, I'd urge you to move fast. There were only a couple of empty seats the night I attended. There would have been none at all if more people had known about the play or suspected what a good job the company make of it.
You can find the PAC website here.