Shakespeare’s play about two lovers in a time of war–the Trojan War, to be exact–is currently playing itself out at the American Place Theater in a new production presented by Theatre For A New Audience and directed by Britain’s eminent Shakespeare man, Sir Peter Hall. All your favorite characters from The Illiad are here–Ulysses, Achilles, Hector, Aeneas, Agammemnon–along with the star-crossed lovers Troilus (of Troy, obviously) and Cressida (soon to be of Greece).
But don’t mistake Troilus and Cressida for a historically grounded Romeo and Juliet; the love story is peripheral at best. And, for a while, so is the war. Set during a brief peacetime when the Greeks and Trojans are already well past the mid-point of their bloody 10-year tiff over the fair Helen of Troy, the play is really about the in-fighting and political maneuvering that takes place behind the battle scenes.
What do you do when your best man refuses to fight? The great warrior Achilles is resting on his laurels, hanging out in his tent with his buddy Patroclus and making fun of the old Greek generals, to their great irritation. Morale is flagging, to say the least. So Ulysses, the most intelligent and decisive of the Greeks, comes up with a plan to make Achilles jealous by sending the stout-and-stupid Ajax up against Troy’s most celebrated son, the valiant Hector. Meanwhile, in Troy, the ruler Priam and his sons are wondering if all of this war is really worth it just so Paris can have Helen. “‘Tis mad idolatry,” argues Hector, “to make the service greater than the god.” But, having made his reservations clear, Hector agrees that they should continue with the war if only to retain their “joint and several dignities.”
While Ajax and Hector are preparing to go one-on-one, Cressida’s uncle Pandarus is busy playing matchmaker. Though she has remained aloof, Cressida has admired Troilus just as he has doted on her. With Pandarus’ encouragement, the pair finally meet and immediately fall in love–or lust, more likely. After a quick, makeshift wedding ceremony and consummation, the news is received that Cressida’s defecting father has negotiated to bring her over to the Greek side along with him in exchange for a Trojan prisoner-of-war. She reluctantly bids adieu to Troilus with promises of fidelity. Then Ajax ends up not fighting Hector, Troilus notices that Cressida has become a little too friendly with her Greek escort, Diomedes, and Achilles is persuaded to live up to his glorious reputation by rejoining the battle and fighting Hector. Much sturm und drang ensues.
Troilus and Cressida is one of those Shakespearean plays that falls into the “too-often-neglected” category. Perhaps it’s not the Bard’s most profound examination of war, but it is illuminating. The play offers a three-dimensional portrayal of these lions of Greek and Trojan legend; they are men not just of hubris, but of both reason and passion. They speak sensibly, yet their lives seem to run between the extremes of terrible violence and love which is, consequently, always doomed. Shakespeare here offers impassioned poetry appopriate to the kind of men who once fought wars over women and pride, juxtaposed with some of his most potent wit and social satire. Via the character of Thersites, a grungy, Greek scrounger-joker who acts as chorus and commentator, Shakespeare cuts down the proud warriors who are killing one another merely to defend the honor of “a cuckold and a whore.”
What is the lesson of Troilus and Cressida? If there is one, it is not really brought to light here. This is a better than adequate production, but not a revelatory one. Centered on the arena stage playing space is a sort of giant sandbox where most of the action takes place. As the play begins, mutilated skeleton-corpses decorate the sandbox, indicating the eventual results of the decisions that will be made by the men who soon fill the stage. Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes are rather hit-and-miss; the Trojans have a kind of Valentino look that is elegantly simple, while the Greeks are outfitted in a sort of denim/militia style.
Like most elements of the production, the performances are sound but not brilliant. Joey Kern and Tricia Paoluccio as Troilus and Cressida lack the genuine sweetness of young lovers that might make us more concerned with them, though there is a certain amount of chemistry between them. Kern starts out unimpressively but becomes more convincing as the play progresses and his character changes from an enthusiastic young man to a blood-soaked, vengeful warrior. Tony Church and Nicholas Kepros as Pandarus and Nestor, respectively, do well in the doddering-old-men roles; but, though Philip Goodwin has a spark as Ulysses, his performance never quite catches fire. Standouts are the excellent David Conrad, convincing as the brave Hector; Earl Hindman as the sympathetic pawn Ajax; and the feisty Andrew Weems, who provides the play’s comic relief.
As choreographed by B.H. Barry, the fight scenes are fantastic, though people in the front rows who got sand in their laps probably didn’t appreciate them as much as I did. Sir Peter Hall’s direction is solid, fluid, and tight, but he doesn’t quite raise the level of action to the fever pitch that it should reach by the end of the battle.
In the end, this is a good rendering of a great work; that the production lacks a clear point-of-view is unfortunate, but not unforgivable. The play is about the Trojan War and was written by William Shakespeare, which is probably reason enough to go. But a little more urgency in the direction and fire from the performers might have made Peter Hall’s Troilus and Cressida a great theatrical experience.