Friday, August 12, 2016

Theater Review—“Troilus and Cressida” in Central Park

Troilus and Cressida
Written by William Shakespeare; directed by Daniel Sullivan
Performances through August 14, 2016
Delacorte Theater, Central Park, New York, NY

Andrew Burnap, John Glover and Ismenia Mendes in Troilus and Cressida (photo: Joan Marcus)

One of the most complex plays in the entire canon, Troilus and Cressida is problematic to stage for many reasons: the language is among Shakespeare’s most dense and knotty; the plotlines swing violently to and fro among romance and farce, tragedy and wartime action; and there’s not one character who is in the least sympathetic. (It’s not surprising that it was probably never performed during Shakespeare’s lifetime, and rarely done since.)

What keeps Troilus relevant is its relentless sarcasm, which gives it a startlingly modern approach. Set during the Trojan War, the Greeks continue to lay siege to the city of Troy in retaliation for Trojan Prince Paris stealing Greek king Menelaus’ beautiful wife Helen. In Troy, King Priam’s son Troilus and young Cressida fall in love—thanks in part to the wily involvement of the degenerate old Pandarus—but she is soon sent to the Greeks as part of a hostage exchange.  

Shakespeare constantly reexamines his characters, which comprise heroes, cowards and everybody in between: prominently sandwiched among warriors Hector, Ajax and Achilles (the latter, sick of fighting, prefers to stay in his tent with close friend Patroclus) is the snide and condescending Thersites, whose caustic zingers are a running commentary on the lunacies of love and war we are witnessing.

Daniel Sullivan directs this summer’s Central Park Troilus as a modern-dress, military-fatigues production, which director Mark Wing-Davey did with his ill-advised Delacorte Theater staging in 1995, the last time it was performed in New York. Parallels between the seven-year siege of Troy and our own endless wars are obvious and don’t spelling out, but Sullivan doesn’t trust audiences to make their own connections, so he clutters the stage with needless gadgetry and heavy-handed “ideas.”

So the play opens with Pandarus—played by John Glover with gleeful disgust, supplemented by a pronounced limp that physicalizes his “diseases” mentioned at play’s end—speaking the opening soliloquy into a microphone while carrying around a tape recorder. Later, there are cell phones and video cameras, a slide show presented by Ulysses (a curiously distant Corey Stoll), Hector retching after killing an adversary in battle, and most ridiculously, machine guns for the climactic battle scene, which loses any sense of the poetic weight that Shakespeare provides by forcing men to lay down those guns and pull out knives to finish one another off. So why use such supposedly lethal weaponry in the first place?

Admittedly, the play is notoriously difficult to stage, especially on a unit set like the Delacorte’s: the play’s 24 scenes lurch from besieged Troy to a Greek encampment to a battlefield. But David Zinn’s industrial-looking set is too rigid to cope with copious scene changes and his costumes are standard-issue fatigues and gym outfits, with a glaring exception: Ulysses wears impeccably tailored suits. Robert Wierzel’s artful lighting and Mark Menard’s bludgeoning sound design are closer to the mark.

It’s ironic that the play is titled Troilus and Cressida, since the couple is barely onstage together. At least Sullivan has two fine young actors in the eponymous roles: Andrew Burnap makes an ingratiating Troilus, and Ismenia Mendes—a wonderful Hero in a 2014 Delacorte Much Ado About Nothing—belies her youth and relative Shakespearean inexperience to give a piercingly truthful portrayal of one of the Bard’s most complicated young women.

Too bad the rest of the cast is all over the map: John Douglas Thompson has little of his usual zest as Agamemnon, Louis Cancelmi’s Achilles is far too shrill (although that’s partly excused by the fact that Cancelmi replaced an injured David Harbour shortly before opening), and Alex Breaux’s brainless Ajax and Tom Pecinka’s ostentatious Patroclus are even more frivolous than Central Park audiences usually get.

At least there’s Bill Heck’s dignified Hector and Max Casella’s acidly funny Thersites; but Sullivan’s directorial hodgepodge makes a mess of Shakespeare’s psychologically acute study of love and death.

Troilus and Cressida
Delacorte Theater, Central Park, New York, NY

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