New York City Theater
"Troilus and Cressida"
Delacorte Theater, Central Park
It’s seven years since the Trojan War began and nothing has been settled. The violence that began when the Trojans’ Paris seduced and kidnapped the Greeks’ willing Helen has dragged on, causing anguish, disillusionment and restlessness. The women are pawns; the men play their deadly games.
This is “Troilus and Cressida,” director Daniel Sullivan’s modern dress, slambang take on perhaps Shakespeare’s most cynical work. Although the first act is wordy, the second climaxes in pulse-pounding battle scenes. Rarely produced (it may not have been seen even in Elizabethan times), the play gives off the whiff of a weariness so enervating that some characters need to be prodded into taking action – goad Ajax, humiliate Achilles, gang up on Hector, betray Troilus – all under the misanthropic eyes of Thersites, who says that “war and lechery confound all.” How well we know in this century about unending wars.
Considered one of Shakespeare’s unclassifiable “problem plays” (along with “All’s Well That Ends Well” and “Measure for Measure”), “Troilus” embroils the title characters in doom-laden rivalries. They love each other (or, at least, love having sex with each other) but are caught up in the realities of conflict. Cressida’s trade-off to the Greeks, in a prisoner swap, leads to not only her acceptance of fate but her own maneuverings to curry favor. In a wonderful scene, she’s observed by Troilus as perfectly willing to play along with her captors and not above giving herself to the Greek warrior Diomedes.
Troilus, incensed, eagerly seeks his bloody revenge, dovetailing with other machinations: kill Achilles’ lover Patroclus to get the warrior angry enough to rise off his duff; concoct a brutal martial arts fight between noble Hector and dimwitted Ajax; be lectured to via a long diatribe about order and chaos given by prevaricating Ulysses, here played as a political power broker, a cold Wall Street manipulator; pay no attention to Cassandra’s prophecies of disaster.
Then there’s Pandarus, whose very name has come to evoke the exploitation of desire, a go-between who arranges assignations, as he does here between Troilus and Cressida. As portrayed by scenery-chewing John Glover, Pandarus the pimp has sexual issues of his own.
As lovers caught up in forces they can’t control, Andrew Burnap is a handsome, fiery Troilus, Ismenia Mendes an attractive, headstrong Cressida, both superb. Bill Heck is a stalwart Hector; Louis Cancelmi a complex Achilles; John Douglas Thompson an aging but vigorous Agamemnon; Max Casella amusing as scurrilous Thersites; and Corey Stoll stealing scenes as the oh-so-clever Ulysses.
In an evening where the eponymous lovers get all but lost in the smoke and gun-fire (they don’t drive the action as do their literary counterparts, Romeo and Juliet), credit fight co-directors Michael Rossmy and Rick Sordelet with the thrilling battles, abetted by Mark Menard’s fearsome sound design. At the performance caught, stage happenings had to compete with a constantly circling helicopter. Shakespeare won.
--David A. Rosenberg
August 11, 2016