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A CurtainUp Review
The Age of Iron
In this adaptation of the two playwrights' work that famous matchmaker Pandarus is nowhere to be seen. Though his omission expedites the plot, jettisoning him is a questionable advantage. Take our first meeting with Troilus and Cressida. In this piece we meet the legendary lovers when they have already fallen in love and are ready to lose themselves—quite literally—-in one passionate night of lovemaking. While we sense the erotic import of the scene there's no chance to reflect on Pandarus' avuncular role (he's Cressida's uncle) or how he insinuates himself further in their love affair.
Another significant retooling by Kulick expands Helen's role. We not only watch her shocking seduction by Paris at Menelaus' home, but later on witness Paris and Menelaus promiscuously competing for her affections at a banquet. It's a revealing scene because it depicts Helen more as a hussy than a royal queen. Although she feels a certain shame as Menelaus tries to persuade her to return to Sparta ("when on him I gaze,/ My error chides me. . .") she ultimately gives in to her sexual appetites ("But I'll this way, for Paris kisses sweeter.")
Like Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida this reconceived work is a chilling examination of love and war that's not designed to elevate your spirits or offer you a Pollyanna outlook on romance or politics. From its harsh prologue, spoken by the character Homer to its non-sentimental epilogue by Ulysses, this is a story that delivers neither catharsis or clear-cut message. But, however it's told, it couldn't be more pertinent to our own troubling political and cultural landscape.
Unlike Shakespeare, Heywood is not a household name even though he was considered a heavyweight in Elizabethan England. Born in 1573 in Lincolnshire and educated at Cambridge, he tried his hand at histories, comedies, tragedies, and even romances. His one indisputable masterpiece, A Woman Killed By Kindness, remains a staple of the classical repertoire. In this Classic Stage work, Heywood's Iron Age is used primarily as a framing device with Troilus and Cressida serving as its centerpiece. Rightly so, for Heywood is no match for Shakespeare's language and pithy insights into the complex human psyche. His verse in the Prologue and Epilogue sounds a bit wooden and isn't especially memorable.
Mark Wendland's set, which resembles a giant sandbox, is an ideal arena for all the military battles and impromptu love-makings between the Trojans and Greeks. At one point the sand is nonchalantly scooped up by Ulysses and let slip through his fingers, mimicking the action of sand sifting through an hour glass. It's a fleeting moment but subtly acknowledges an invisible character in the play: Time. After all, it's 7 years into the Trojan War when the action opens and all the characters are conscious— to a greater or lesser extent—of the slow passage of time in the stale-mated war.
The costumes by Oana Botez-Ban are a gorgeous array of haute couture gowns (for Helen), a silken shift and negligee (for Cressida), and classic-styled military uniforms and armor for the Greek and Trojan armies. Nothing any character wears is too fussy. And combined with the lighting by Brian H. Scott, the effect is just right for the intimate performing space.
Undoubtedly, the epic story of Troy is not easy to absorb in one evening. For audience members who have not pre-digested Homer's Iliad or Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, this hybrid production is likely to be somewhat confusing and those who come prepared may have reservations about thecomic emphasis. Whether it's Achilles wallowing in his Greek tent (with his male-tart Patroclus) and refusing to fight, or the cynical rantings of the fool Thersites (who acts as a kind of Chorus), theere's a cartoonlike effectiveness to the actions that neatly turns the chivalric tradition on its head and becomes essentially a parody of military heroes, politicians, and lovers. In short, Kulick invites us to examine the very slippery nature of romantic love and war.
The acting is generally commendable. Steven Skybell, as the crafty Ulysses, delivers the famous "Degree" speech with coruscating wit. His seamless delivery is no accident since he's already played this character in the Public Theater's 1995 Troilus and Cressida in Central Park. On the romantic front, Finn Wittrock and Dylan Moore don't disappoint and the two young lovers, Troilus and Cressida. Other standouts in the evening are the attractive Tina Benko as Helen, and the rightly arrogant Bill Christ as Ajax. The major casting misstep is having the excellent Xanthe Elbrick (Tony Award nomination for Coram Boy) instead of having a male actor play Achilles' male prostitute, Elbrick cross-dresses to inhabit the masculine role. It seems like an unnecessary reach and oddly cancels out Shakespeare's homosexual conceit.
This drawing on Heywood's and Shakespeare's plays about Troy is intriguing. But it hardly adds up to an Elizabethan Iliad.