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Troilus and Cressida

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - August 9, 2016

Ismenia Mendes, Andrew Burnap,
and John Glover
Photo by Joan Marcus

In one corner: the corrupt government, which uses its chosen arm of force (given that its agents wear black Kevlar and wield powerful pistols, apparently the FBI) to impose its will via stifling bureaucracy on all those below it. In the other: the green-fatigued army men, headstrong to the point of pompousness and cockily confident in their own infinite abilities, who perceive even the toughest battles as simple tactical puzzles that can be solved with the right automatic weapon.

Go ahead, choose a side!

Such is the decision central to Daniel Sullivan's aggressive but unsteady new Public Theater production of Troilus and Cressida, which runs through this weekend at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. According to it, the problem with the world is not, as the American right may insist, our leaders have invested themselves with extraconstitutional power we did bestow them, or, per the left, that our weaponized representation has no good check on its own worst impulses. No, it's that our country unable to channel its own political disagreements in constructive ways, and instead, can't we all just get along?

Paper-thin spins like this come easily and often to Troilus and Cressida, which, perhaps more than any other William Shakespeare play, resists straightforward categorization. But unlike its fellow "problem plays" All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure, this one has the added wrinkle of declining to explain itself (as well as, more critically, its underlying nature) in performance. It registers, alternately, as a fantastical history, a tragedy, a farce, a satire, and even a narrative epic poem, but not remaining as any for a single conception to take hold. And as its subject is the nearly decade-long conflict between Troy and Greece we now call the Trojan War, perhaps its exhibiting some symptoms of every known form of dramatic storytelling makes sense.

That there's no record of its public performance during Shakespeare's lifetime, and that it was barely performed at all until the early 20th century, suggests that we've never really known what to make of it. This gives directors an unusual amount of carte blanche to impose their own (and their companies') worldviews onto it, which typically leads to exactly the lopsided, if not outright confusing, views you may expect. What tends to emerge, if only by default, is the story of the titular lovers, Troilus of Troy by birthright (his father is the king, Priam) and Cressida by defection (though she still has ties to the Greece her father, Calchas, left), whose relationship crumbles beneath the weight of warfare.

It's a sort of contortion of the Romeo and Juliet dilemma: When there's fighting all around, what happens to the sane folks caught in the middle? The twist here, though, is that Troilus and Cressida aren't blameless or innocent from the get-go, or disinterested parties prime for coercion. They're full-on authors of their own story, sufficiently experienced and well positioned to take command of—and royally screw up—their own lives. All while everything spins more and more out of control around them. This is a play that acknowledges, in its very text, that in some cases there are no winners. From leaders of both factions openly pondering the wisdom in pressing on to the ratlike commentator, Thersites, who most openly moralizes on our behalf, self-awareness is rampant even if self-actualization is not.

That's part of why foisting too many additional burdens of interpretation on Troilus and Cressida tend to cripple it so easily, and why, for Sullivan, even those costumes are a death sentence. They're not poorly designed; David Zinn, who created them as well as the modular office-meets-barracks-meets-battlefield set, did a credible job. (The unsettling lights are by Robert Wierzel; the appropriately eerie, if sometimes overdone, sound design is by Mark Menard; and the blazing metal music is by Dan Moses Schreier.)

Alex Breaux, Corey Stoll, Zach Appelman,
and Edward James Hyland
Photo by Joan Marcus

But by floating the notion that all this is really nothing more than internecine warfare (in essence, the United States arguing with itself), Sullivan torpedoes Shakespeare's grand point that war, pursued faithfully enough, obliterates discernible differences between good and evil. (Even the romancing pair fall victim to this.) When there's no clear distinction between combatants, you lose the notion that the war they're fighting ever meant anything to begin with. It's easy enough today to look at Google Maps and see how close Western Turkey is to the Athens, but those distances meant something violently real 3,200 years ago.

With that urgency propelling the degradation of common sense and, thus, the pursuit of increasingly meaningless goals via intractable strategies, this is an empty, bewildering play that seems to delight in saying nothing. It has a wonderful time doing it, and Sullivan has assembled a fine cast, starting with the outstanding young actors Andrew Burnap and Ismenia Mendes to play the title characters. Both looking, like their characters, poised at the final junction between youth and adulthood, they portray people clearly torn between the libidinous urges common to the former and the devotion to honor and duty that (ideally) can come to define the latter—oh, and they share a boiling hot chemistry that ensures the love scenes play with full effectiveness.

Scarcely less good are Bill Heck as Troy's bold conquering hero Hector and Alex Breaux as his dimwitted Greek equivalent, Ajax; both actors commit themselves so completely that you don't have a second to believe the two lead squabblers are puns in more powerful men's plans. On that line, John Douglas Thompson brings a real George S. Patton fervor to the Greek general Agamemnon and Edward James Hyland a level-headed patina to the aging warmonger Nestor; Corey Stoll invests Greek middle manager Ulysses with a business-minded approach to influence (of all types) that terrifies as much for its coldness as for its utter believability; and Miguel Perez (as Priam and Calchas) and Maurice Jones (as the kidnapped Helen's lover, Paris) turn out lower-key, but still convincing performances for the Trojans.

Smaller roles are mostly well filled, too, from Sanjit de Silva's diplomatic Aeneas and Nneka Okafor's desperate but not deluded Cassandra to Tala Ashe's stately Helen and protective Andromache and Zach Appelman's robotically focused muscleman Diomedes. Tom Pecinka pushes it a little far as an ultra-gay Patroclus, taking his lead from the text in playing the attendant to the Greek hero Achilles (a darkly commanding Louis Cancelmi, quite good as a late replacement for an injured-in-previews David Harbour), but doing more than needs to be done. And Max Casella pushes it a lot too far as Thersites, though that's a low-comedy part that bears it better.

Pandarus, the uncle who brings Troilus and Cressida together after many years of ignoring their attraction for each other, is given a gleeful coat of both-sides-against-the-middle relish by John Glover. Accentuating both Pandarus's intellectual and his lecherous sides, Glover crafts a unique portrait of a man who, like Thersites, sees a great deal more than he can master and, in fact, often appears to be controlling it all (or at least attempting to do so). But, as so many like him do, he learns that meddling can easily causes more ills than it cures.

By trying to have too much, in other words, Pandarus ends up with nothing. So does Sullivan in the final analysis. Even if many individual steps along the way are in the right direction, once you reach the location where the FBI is fighting the army, aren't you better off either backtracking or letting them do their thing than getting yourself caught in the crossfire?

Troilus and Cressida
Through August 14
The Delacorte Theater in Central Park
Free Ticket information and Performance Schedule:

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