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Rewriting Shakespeare at The Public

Date: Feb 23, 2011


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It seems like a simple question, but it's not: Who authored the Public Theater's new production of Timon of Athens?

There's Shakespeare, of course, whose name is on the program, and there's playwright Thomas Middleton, who may have collaborated with the Bard on this "problem play" about a wealthy gentleman who loses his money, his friends, and his faith in humanity, in that order.

But beyond those two, you could make a case for Barry Edelstein, the production's director and the head of the Public's Shakespeare Initiative. He hasn't written any new words, but he's cut, tweaked, and rearranged the script until it feels like a new show.

And if you've ever slogged through the original text, then you know it needs an update. "It's one of those that requires a fair amount of adapting and finessing," Edelstein says. "But if you give yourself permission to do that, then what's revealed inside is a really spectacular and powerful play."

Edelstein tackled the show after 2008's financial crisis. He recalls, "Oskar Eustis, [the Public's artistic director,] said, 'Okay, how are going to respond to this? Since I run the Shakespeare department, it was my charge to say, 'Well, there are two Shakespeare plays about money. One is The Merchant of Venice, and the other is Timon of Athens and we should do them." (The Public's presented Merchant on Broadway earlier this season.)

He continues, "In both of the plays, Shakespeare seems to be suggesting that in a world where money is the ultimate measure of human value, all relationships will collapse. In The Merchant, it's romantic love that gets permanently tainted by money. In Timon, it's friendship that gets permanently tainted by money."

So given this relevance, what keeps the original Timon from being ready for the stage? "There's an awful lot of repetitive stuff, where ideas just get laid out again and again and again," Edelstein says. "It's also very bogged down in Jacobean topical references, and that stuff wants to go.

"The second part of it was there were all these different guys that come through the play. I've condensed Timon's friends down to three guys and put them into [earlier] scenes that they're not in, so you can actually follow the relationship all the way through the first act. When they betray him, it really lands."

Edelstein also shuffles the end of act one so that immediately after Timon (Richard Thomas) assaults his friends for refusing to help him out of debt, he launches into a soliloquy about how humanity itself has failed him. Together, the moments paint a thundering portrait of despair.

In act two, the director rearranges the visitors to Timon's secluded hideaway. The buffoons come first, with their obvious ploys to use him yet again, but the last three characters actually try to heal him. Their thoughtful arguments are in the original text, but since they're buried inside comic relief, they're harder to absorb.

Edelstein's production highlights these changes. It's part of the Public's Lab Shakespeare program, which strips away spectacle to put the focus on words, acting, and core design elements.

In this context, the director has noticed how often Shakespeare repeats words like "bounty" and "friend," and how much their meaning changes throughout the play. "You start to hear these patterns come in and out and cluster together and change into something else," he says. "You start to hear things in a way that you can never really perceive until you hear them out loud."

He hopes his adaptation will help audiences share his deep connection to the show, saying, "The flaws of its text notwithstanding, the story of the play is just as resonant and topical and disturbing as it could possibly be."


Mark Blankenship edits TDF Stages.

Production photo of Timon of Athens by Joan Marcus