By Toby Zinman
For the Inquirer
The Philadelphia Artists Collective (aka PAC) shows its collective courage once again. In choosing to give us a rare production of Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens, they undertake what few theater companies dare to do. It’s a tough play, full of unlikable characters and difficult language; it hammers home the same idea over and over again, and this requires power and subtlety of delivery. So I’m torn between admiration for PAC’s valiant attempt, and disappointment in their production.
Written (probably) in 1605, Timon was never performed in Shakespeare’s lifetime; that date makes it contemporaneous with King Lear with which it has much in common. Both are about old men who make profound and catastrophic errors in judgment; both go mad, and both have loyal servants, but nobody thinks of Timon of Athens as a great tragedy.
Timon (Christopher Coucil) starts out as a rich nobleman; he is, literally, generous to a fault, wining and dining his friends, pressing valuable gifts on them, assuming the affection is returned. He has been warned by his steward (Nathan Foley) of the disastrous state of his finances, and chided by a cynic (Charlotte Northeast) for his gullibility. His so-called friends all are greedy hypocrites (these actors signal their characters’ slimy natures rather too blatantly), and they will all desert him once they discover that he has run through his fortune. Timon retreats from the city in despair and disgust at human nature.
The relevance to the contemporary world is clear: grasping, ruthless people control the social world as well as the government, and war heroes, like the fierce Alcibiades (Jihad Milhem) go unappreciated. This relevance should have made it easy to find some contemporary style for the production rather than these distractingly awful costumes. It’s hard to do opulence on a shoestring, but if all you have is a shoestring, you need to abandon makeshift togas and high-heeled sandals (!?) and use some imagination.
As director, Dan Hodge makes a tactical error in casting women in many of the male roles; it knocks the play off balance (tiny women playing cutthroats and shrill senators), and confuses the issues which have nothing to do with gender. The music, which begins at odd moments, is really really annoying.
Philadelphia Artists Collective at Broad Street Ministry, 315 S. Broad St. Through April 20. Tickets $20. Information: 800-838-3006 or www.brownpapertickets.com