Like Lear, Timon has two friends who do not betray her; one, taking the role of the fool, is the cynic Apemantus (Arnie Burton). Having refused gifts from Timon when she was rich, he does not find her alfresco poverty off-putting. A punk wearing a Patti Smith T-shirt and black nail polish, he needles her either way.
The other steadfast friend, the soldier Alcibiades, has been vastly rejiggered in an attempt to give the play a timely hook. Now a woman (Elia Monte-Brown) and a political firebrand instead of a carouser, she has been stripped of her accompanying prostitutes; her purely personal beef with Athens has been turned into a noble grievance.
“The dispossessed without the city walls/make their abode,” she says. “No roof, no comfort, no hope of citizenship,/No home, no country, they have abandoned hope.” (These lines are by Godwin and Burns.) Later, when she orders the Athenian senators to step down or die, their unlikely answer — “We no longer are defensible” — is cadged from “Henry V.”
As written, “Timon” isn’t coherent enough to justify much fidelity. But the aspects of it that still reward investigation — the satire of sycophants and the tortured portrait of Timon — do not jibe comfortably with this Occupy Athens interpretation. It’s hard to connect the problems of contemporary wealth distribution to a story whose conflict is confined to the upper classes. (Timon’s servants adore her.) And though Godwin tries to make her a Christ of the kleptocracy, even having her bear her own tombstone on her back, what Timon has against the rich is not that they won’t share with the poor but that they won’t share with her.
Not that there are many rich or poor in this staging. Physically lovely, the big multicity endeavor — produced by Theater for a New Audience in New York and Godwin’s Shakespeare Theater Company in association with the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon — is nevertheless short on troops; a cast of 14 means more doubling than desirable in a play originally stocked with some three-dozen roles. Still, it goes further than most in making the two halves of the play hang together; emphasizing the almost vaudevillian humor throughout (complete with vengeful spritzings of seltzer) is a big help.
So is Hunter, a natural shape-shifter, whose roles at Theater for a New Audience have included Puck, a wax statue, a gallery of Ethiopians and a chimp. That she apparently contains multitudes is an especially useful trait in joining the joyful Lady Bountiful of the opening scenes with the mad misanthrope of the later ones. She finds the link between them in the way money corrupts Timon’s understanding of human relations, turning generosity into a kind of usury, extorting the interest of the idle well-born. When wealth is the measure of all things, she learns too late, being wealthy in friends isn’t worth much.
Timon of Athens
Tickets Through Feb. 9 at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, Brooklyn; 866-811-4111, tfana.org. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.