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Troilus and Cressida

Shakespeare in the Park takes on the famously difficult Trojan War play.

Andrew Burnap and Bill Heck star in William Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, directed by Daniel Sullivan, for the Public Theater's Shakespeare in the Park at the Delacorte Theater.
(© Joan Marcus)

There is something especially unsettling in 2016 about sitting in a crowded theater, surrounded by realistic gunfire. Yet that's exactly what director Daniel Sullivan gives us in the nail-biting, heart-pounding climax of his extraordinary Shakespeare in the Park mounting of Troilus and Cressida. It's "Saving Private Ryan'' on the beaches of Troy: not a glorious song of heroism, but a brutal and ugly portrait of senseless war. This vital production set in modern times is exactly what Shakespeare intended.

With its bi-polar tonal shifts and long, formal speeches, Troilus and Cressida is one of Shakespeare's most problematic plays. As a consequence, it is rarely ever produced. Its cynical take on puppy love almost feels like a rebuke to the fans of the Bard's earlier (and much more popular) Romeo and Juliet, while its jaundiced view of war stands in stark contrast to the triumphant militarism of Henry V. This is Shakespeare at his most subversive and in a dynamite production like this, it is absolutely thrilling to behold.

Helen (Tala Ashe, center) always has a glass of red wine on hand in Troilus and Cressida.
(© Joan Marcus)

Unsurprisingly, the young lovers of the title are the least interesting characters of the story. Troilus (the handsome and angsty Andrew Burnap) is the youngest son on Priam (Miguel Perez), King of Troy. This is the seventh year of the Greek assault on the city, meant to recapture Helen (Tala Ashe, hilariously playing the legendary beauty like a real housewife of Anatolia). Helen left Menelaus (Forrest Malloy) for Paris (Maurice Jones) almost a decade ago, yet the war drags on. "Fools on both sides," Troulis bitterly describes the warring Greeks and Trojans, "Helen must needs be fair when with your blood you daily paint her thus." He only has eyes for Cressida (the tough yet vulnerable Ismenia Mendes), the daughter of a local nobleman. But will their true love endure after she is given to the Greeks in a prisoner exchange? The longer it grinds on, the more the war becomes personal to all involved, even those without a stake in its original causes.

Thanks to specific and fleshy performances, we get to intimately understand each character's relationship to that conflict: Bill Heck's admirably restrained Hector is a protective older brother, a chivalrous warrior in an undignified age. Sanjit De Silva's Aeneas is far cockier, purposefully mispronouncing King Agamemnon's name as if he were a bouncer at an exclusive club reading the last page of the guest list (John Douglas Thompson's Agamemnon responds by pronouncing his name "an anus"). Max Casella is very funny as the cowardly Thersites, a fool who instinctively seems to understand the foolishness of this entire endeavor.

Agamemnon (John Douglas Thompson) and Aeneas (Sanjit De Silva) parley in Troilus and Cressida.
(© Joan Marcus)

Wisely curtailing the bloviating inherent in the script, Sullivan accentuates the generational divide of the story: Agamemnon and Nestor (Edward James Hyland) are old men, frustrated with the lack of commitment coming from their younger troops. Achilles (the hawk-eyed Louis Cancelmi, stepping in for David Harbour, who was sidelined by an injury to his Achilles tendon) rarely leaves the tent he shares with Patroclus (Tom Pecinka) anymore (both men are wonderfully "bro homo" in their interactions). Looking and sounding like an army legal consultant, Corey Stoll's magnificently slimy Ulysses argues for a change of tactics: Cheneyesque, he plots to win the war by stoking professional jealousy between Achilles and rival warrior Ajax (a perfectly doltish Alex Breaux). Considering that many of these soldiers looks like they must have been pre-pubescent when the war started, such creative encouragement is necessary to keep them engaged.

By setting his production in this century, Sullivan draws a none-too-subtle parallel between the protracted conflict in The Illiad and America's own seemingly endless wars: Set and costume designer David Zinn dresses the Greeks in desert fatigues and places them inside makeshift barracks of corrugated iron. It all looks straight out of Jarhead. Makeup designer Cookie Jordan has covered the soldiers in ink: One large back tattoo reads "For the Fallen" in elaborate script, a permanent reminder of death to carry around on one's back. The men lift weights to heavy metal (intense original music by Dan Moses Schreier) as sweat, aggression, lust, and pure virility throbs off the stage. It is both incredibly threatening and hot.

Ajax (Alex Breaux), Ulysses (Corey Stoll), Diomedes (Zach Appelman), and Nestor (Edward James Hyland) share a moment in Troilus and Cressida.
(© Joan Marcus)

Yet any pleasure we may take in the fetishization of the military is immediately dispelled by fight directors Michael Rossmy and Rick Sordelet's gruesome final battle scene. The rapid gunfire is ear-splitting and feels quite real, leading some audience members to flee for the exits. After Hector declines to kill Achilles while he is disarmed and injured, the latter man remarks, "I do disdain thy courtesy, proud Trojan." Unlike Hector, he understands that this is war and rules are for suckers. There is nothing glamorous, glossy, or civilized about it.