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A CurtainUp Review
Troilus and Cressida
By Elyse Sommer
Troilus and Cressida is widely regarded as one of Shakespeare's most difficult to stage plays and consequently also one of the most rarely seen. The play is filled with comic elements, yet it's more tragedy than comedy. It's rooted in the decade-long Trojan War, yet it centers around a star-crossed love story reminiscent of the much more popular Romeo and Juliet.
For Sir Peter Hall, who spent six weeks in New York directing the Theatre for New Audience's production, Troilus and Cressida marks a return to the play that established his career with the Royal Shakespeare Company forty years ago, with productions in Stratford, Edinburgh and London. Set designer Douglas Stein has helped him to transform the American Place into a theater in the round to accommodate a sort of sand filled bull ring in which this drama of lost innocence and sexual betrayal are played out against the background of a senseless war which no one seems to know how to bring to an end (Think of Vietnam, the Balkans, Northern Ireland and the Israeli-Palestine conflict and the relevancy of this, like so many of the Bard's plays is clear). Tossed randomly into this ring are skeletons in various forms of decay -- grim signal that a love story set in war is, like that war, likely to more Hell than Heaven.
The mangy, scab-scarred Thersites (Andrew Weems) delivers the prologue that sets the scene for what was and what will be, and also serves as a clarifying one-person chorus throughout. While the main events take place on the sandy central set, the actors inhabit the entire theater -- moving around a walkway that encircles the sandy center, up and down both aisles, and at times speaking from the balcony at the side of the theater. It all makes for an easy to follow story (Go to the end of the review for a plot summary). with the Trojans easily identified by the maroon dominated palette and good condition of their costumes and the Greeks in black raggedy outfits and generally unkempt looking.
The more than three hours it takes to get to the bloody climax requires some sitzfleisch. However, the action moves forward fluidly and at a very decent pace and fight director B. H. Barry has staged the sword play with enough vigor and grunts to make you wonder if you're at a live showing of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
The all-American cast has clearly benefited from the distinguished British director's guidance in delivering Shakespeare's lines in the right rhythm and without wasting their energy on trying to sound British. While the performances are not uniformly outstanding there are enough ranging for good to excellent to warrant putting this rarely done offering on your catch-it-while-you-can list.
Joey Kern, who has more experience playing modern thugs than romantic leads (he was one of the baby killers in the recent TFNA revival of Saved), makes an auspicious Shakespeare debut as Troilus. With his blonde good looks he's a physical natural for the role. His acting and delivery are clear and spirited. He is well matched with Tricia Paoluccio as Cressida. In the Greek camp, the undisputed standout is Philip Goodwin. He portrays the scheming Ulysses with convincing vigor and elegantly speaks his many difficult lines. Andrew Weems is both funny and scary as the one-man chorus. The cast is too large to comment in detail, so I'll conclude with Viviene Benesch who, while making just two cameo appearances as Cassandra, makes one want to see her in more and larger roles.
Our review of Sir Peter Hall's exciting epic Tantalus
Our review of Theatre for New Audiences' last production, a revival of a contemporary classic -- Saved
For our Shakespeare page go here
The plot in a very tiny nutshell: It is the seventh stalemated year of Grecian siege of Troy, a war brought about when the Trojan Paris abducted the beautiful Helen from her Greek husband, Menelaus. The war is the framework for the star-crossed lover story the Trojan King Priam's, youngest son Troilus and Cressida, daughter of a defector to the Greeks, whose Uncle Pandarus acts as an intermediary. As for the war, both sides are tired of it and question its continuation. The still idealistic Troilus persuades his brother Hector to carry on, as the wiley Greek General Ulysses tries to stir up the fighting spirit of their great warrior Achilles.
As misjudgments and bad advice keep the animosities alive, Troilus and Cressida are separated when Cressida's father arranges for an exchange of a Trojan prisoner-of-war for Cressida. Once in the Greek camp, Cressida can't resist the lecherous advances of the Greek soldiers. When Troilus, finding himself near Cressida after a battle between his brother Hector and Ajax (an ineffectual substitute for the warrior Achilles who has laid down his sword) he witnesses her promising herself to the Grecian Diomedes. As Troilus is deeply disillusioned in love, so his brother Hector refuses to listen to the ominous predictions of his sister, Cassandra and his wife Andromache. He kills Patrocolus, Achilles' companion which revives the latter's warrior instinct. He kills Hector which once again brings the war to full boil for another three years and completes Troilus' despair about life and love.