Wednesday, August 10, 2016

TROILUS AND CRESSIDA: War and Lechery Reign Supreme in the Public Theater’s Grandly-Realized Shakespeare In The Park Production

Cast Photo by Jennifer Broski

A veritable Who’s Who of the Trojan War is onstage in the Public Theater’s revelatory, thrilling, and thoroughly engaging production of William Shakespeare’s seldom-seen “problem play,” Troilus and Cressida, at Central Park’s open air Delacorte Theater  or as it is generally referred to, Shakespeare In The Park.  

There they are, divided into two camps, those characters whose fame has lived on for centuries. Among those familiar to us on the Trojan side are King Priam and his children:  daughter Cassandra, gifted with the power of prophecy and condemned never to be listened to; son Paris, whose abduction of Helen started the damn war in the first place; and their brother, the mighty warrior Hector. On the Greek side you’ve got such notables as Agamemnon, Commander of the Army; Menelaus, Agamemnon’s brother and cuckolded husband of Helen; and the legendary warriors Ulysses, Ajax, and Achilles.

The first thing you should know about the play is this: The title characters are but pawns in the game that is the Trojan War. They get together after some manipulative goading by Cressida’s sleazy uncle Pandarus (portrayed in a wonderfully comic and icky performance by John Glover), whose syphilis-riddled body appears to fall apart before our eyes as the evening progresses.

The delightfully starry-eyed scenes between Troilus (Andrew Burnap) and Cressida (Ismenia Mendes) argue convincingly that they deserve a romantic Shakespearean comedy of their own. But, alas, after one night of lusty love-making, Cressida is tagged in a prisoner exchange that tears them apart and sends her to the Greeks. And while the lovers pledge faithfulness, Cressida is in no position to keep that promise; she protects herself from being passed among the soldiers as a camp whore by hooking up with Diomedes (Zach Appelman), who at least will protect her. (Try explaining that to the stiff-necked Troilus, however). 

Much of the play focuses on the war, which has been going on for seven years. The Greeks are in disarray. Their one-time hero Achilles (a strong performance by Louis Cancelmi, a last-minute replacement for an injured David Harbour) has long since stepped down from the battle. He can mostly be found goofing off and romping in bed with his boyfriend Patroclus (Tom Pecinka).

Ulysses (Corey Stoll) concocts a scheme with General Agamemnon (John Douglas Thompson) to goad Achilles into one-on-one combat with Hector (Bill Heck),  the Trojan champion. But Achilles refuses to take the proffered bait, and it is the doofus Ajax (played in all-out surfer dude glory by Alex Breaux) who takes up the challenge. When Hector polishes him off (while sparing his life), war resumes at full tilt. Eventually, Achilles takes up arms once more and here we go again. 

Past audiences may have been confused by the play's mix of romance, dark comedy, and war, but Troilus and Cressida is truly and thoroughly modern in its jaundiced view of human follies and foibles. As the reluctant and cynical soldier Thersites (a terrific Max Casella) declares, all is “war and lechery.” This is the prevailing theme of the play, and Shakespeare provides the concluding exclamation mark as John Glover faces the audience and promises to “bequeathe you my diseases.” 

This production – so well directed by Daniel Sullivan and blessed with a cast of some two dozen top-notch actors – makes the case for Troilus and Cressida as one of the great Shakespeare dramas, often puzzled over but hardly ever seen. The plot unfolds with clarity, and while Sullivan employs modernisms (laptop computers and contemporary military uniforms and weapons), he completely honors Shakespeare’s language, and the wonderful performances make it accessible to our ears. Unless you are gunshot-phobic (the sounds of battle are pervasive), grab a ticket if you can.  You are unlikely to see as good in the foreseeable future.  

Feel free to share this blog with your friends, and to offer up your own theater stories by posting a comment. I also invite you to check out the new website Show-Score.Com, where you will find capsule reviews of current plays from Yours Truly and many other New York critics.  

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