Sunday, July 31, 2016

Pride and Petulance: A Lesser-Known Shakespeare Play on War and Women

It was a perfect summer evening at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park. Hot but not stifling.  Clear, with enough of a breeze to keep most of the bugs at bay.  And a brilliant production on the stage for about three hours.

An infrequently produced play, Troilus & Cressida is set in Troy (a.k.a. Phrygia) when the war between Troy and the Greeks, ostensibly over Helen of Troy, has been going on for seven years.  This seems to be symbolized by the debris surrounding the set on its lower level, trash bags and plastic chairs separating the audience from the stage.

Calchas, a minor Trojan priest, allegedly foresees the fall of Troy and moves into the Greek invading camp.  His daughter Cressida he leaves to the care of his brother, Pandarus, remaining in Troy.  It seems the Trojans do not hold Calchas’ daughter responsible for her father’s surely treasonous actions, and Troy’s youngest prince, Troilus, falls for her.  The "romance” of the play is orchestrated by Cressida’s uncle Pandarus. 

John Glover, my favorite Pandarus to date, opens the play as Prologue, and closes the tale of lust, greed, and violence with sly wit.
Andrew Burnap as Troilus, John Glover as Pandarus, and Ismenia Mendes as Cressida. (Photo Credit Joan Marcus, NYT)

The major players you’ll have heard of.  Among the Greeks are 

  • Agamemnon, the great general played with confident strength by John Douglas Thompson
  • His brother Menelaus, cuckolded husband of Helen, an appropriately mealy-mouthed performance by Forrest Malloy (who also plays a creepy Calchas)
  • Nestor, the old soldier brought to grumpy life by Edward James Hyland
  • Ulysses, the canny statesman-like soldier played as a shrewd and smarmy politician by Corey Stoll
  • Achilles, famed as much for his pride and petulance as for his prowess on the battlefield, from which he has abstained for some time*, was unexpectedly and marvelously played by “understudy,” KeiLyn Durrel Jones
  • Patroclus, Achilles’ special friend lounging around the Greek camp tents played like a juvenile delinquent by Tom Pecinka
  • Ajax, an oddly scrawny and remarkably dumb soldier related to both the Greeks and the Trojans played with humor and heart by Alex Breaux
  • Diomedes, a hardened middle management level soldier well played by Zach Appelman

 *We learn later that this is to honor his other love, Trojan princess Polyxena

In Troy, the setting of the story, are 
  • The valiant Hector, an honorable man, eldest son and heir to King Priam, passionately played by Bill Heck
  • Paris, the arrogant lout who stole away Menelaus’s wife Helen and whose libidinous impulses started this whole mess, was coldly played by Maurice Jones
  • Aeneas, a leading citizen soldier was adroitly and cleverly played by Sanjit De Silva
  • Troilus, youngest son of Priam — “He eats nothing but doves, love, and that breeds hot blood, and hot blood begets hot thoughts, and hot thoughts beget hot deeds, and hot deeds is love.” — is played in pubescent heat by Andrew Burnap
  • As the vulnerable young woman of the piece, in love, yet wise beyond her years, Ismenia Mendes does finely detailed work bringing Cressida to life onstage.
  • Alexander, Cressida’s clever gossiping servant sets a light tone in the first act, competing with Pandarus for his mistress’ attention and favor.  Well portrayed by Nicholas Hoge
  • In Troy we also meet Hector’s wife Andromache, silent until she can bear it no longer, bravely played by Tala Ashe
  • Hector and Troilus’ sister, the prophetess Cassandra to whom no one listens, strikingly played by Nneka Okafor
  • And Helen.  Not a typical Helen, this production gave us a fascinating portrayal of an unhappy woman who is guarded by armed men and supplied with wine.  This unusual choice was well played by Tala Ashe

KeiLyn Durrel Jones in rehearsal, not as Achilles in this photo.  Center is Corey Stoll rehearsing for Ulysses, and finally John Douglas Thompson as General Agamemnon.  

Daniel Sullivan’s production for Shakespeare in the Park is the best I have ever seen of this play.  It’s generically modern with soldiers in flak jackets, carrying guns as well as knives, the Trojans in black, the Greeks in desert war camouflage.  Laptops are used by Pandarus and Cressida to watch the parade of Trojan warriors returning to Ilion after a day of battle, as well as by the Greek military.  Ulysses’ long summation early in the first half of the play is enhanced by an amusing slide show.

David Zinn’s set easily turns from Troy’s hedonistic blood-red walls with a look of watered silk to the metallic gray Quonset hut walls of the Greek camp.  A level above the main playing area is put to excellent use by soldiers, the vile Thersites, this play’s unusual “clown” (nastily played by Max Casella), a betrayed and bereft Cressida, and also serves as a strategic lookout for Ulysses.

Ulysses is a particularly threatening character in this production, a corporate/government type, his uniform a white shirt, a suit and tie.  He instigates, cajoles, instructs the Greeks, sounding even tempered and sensible until his rage leaps out only to be restrained once more.  In the second half this wily manipulator plays Troilus against himself while condemning Cressida to the fate of all women in men’s wars, particularly those relegated to “camp follower.”

John Glover is a brilliant Pandarus, witty, lascivious, and romantic in his matchmaking of Troilus and Cressida — unless it was purely a power play to set himself up for better times to come.  Troilus starts out sweet, romantic, but turns into a weak fool, first by not stepping up or even speaking out for his purported love Cressida while the Trojans and Greeks barter her like a goat. By the end he turns against the woman he loves as she attempts to stay alive and avoid gang rape after being tossed alone and friendless into the Greek camp.  These are enemies to the Trojan state and likewise to her.  Troilus’ character slides downhill from the moment he attains what he thinks is his heart’s desire, the love of Cressida.

Lighting designed by Robert Wierzel and sound design by Mark Menard brought forth startling battle sounds of gunfire and explosions.  Brightly lit Trojan lovers contrasted with the gloomy grays of the Greek camp where Cressida is surrounded by soldiers hovering to pounce if her protector deserts her.

The fight scenes, choreographed by co-fight directors Michael Rossmy and Rick Sordelet, were tight and frightening, and the dread death of Hector, an act of cowardice and misplaced vengeance, was bloody and heartbreaking.

Women are silenced and used, Andromache left alone, Cassandra locked up, while Helen is imprisoned in Troy and Cressida is imprisoned in the Greek camp.  Very powerful statements clearly defined in this production. As Thersites says, “War and lechery confound all.” 

Bravo Daniel Sullivan, bravo Public Theatre, bravo to a fine cast and crew for this stellar production.  Oh, and bravo to William Shakespeare once again.
Tom Pecinka as Patroclus, David Harbour as Achilles (whom I did not see), and Max Casella as Thersites.
(Photo Credit Joan Marcus)

~ Molly Matera signing off to re-read the play. The opening of the play has been postponed due to an accident that befell David Harbour, scheduled to play Achilles.  The night I saw this play his understudy KeiLyn Durrel Jones gave an excellent performance, so I hope he takes over the role permanently.  Go wait on line in Central Park for this one, it’s worth it.  You can see a video excerpt of the production here:

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