Shakespeare's plays tend to be organized into four categories: the comedies, the tragedies, the histories, and the problem plays. Troilus and Cressida, along with All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure, were first labeled "the problem plays" in 1896 by Frederick Boas because they are neither purely tragic nor comic. Written in the four-year period between Hamlet and Othello, they're what we now call black comedies: satires without clear heroes, distinguished by often-nasty wit and ambiguous resolutions. Rarely produced until the 20th century, the three haven't spun off as many imitators as Shakespeare's other works.
Of the three -- indeed, of all of Shakespeare's plays -- Troilus is considered the most troubling. Chronicling a moment halfway through the Trojan War, the play takes aim at several sacred cows, namely the glory of war, slavish dedication to honor, and the sanctity of true love. It was performed only sporadically until 1734, and then sat dormant for 165 years. After World War I, Troilus began to find an audience; productions increased during the Vietnam War, when its antiwar message gained currency.
How could the Shotgun Players resist Troilus? The first time artistic director Patrick Dooley read the play, he totted up the characters and decided his company lacked the actors and resources to produce it. The second time, he'd already knocked off Iphigenia in Aulis and There Will Be No Trojan War -- what more perfect play to round out his Trojan War trilogy? Troilus gives codirectors Dooley and Joanie McBrien the chance to visit many of the same themes, such as the pointlessness of war and the status of women.
Troilus begins seven years into the Trojan War. Both sides are heartily sick of the conflict. Outside the besieged city, the soldiers are restive, inspired in their muted revolt by the mighty Achilles, who refuses to leave his tent and the love of Patroclus. Inside the city, the sons of King Priam are arguing over whether it's worth holding onto Helen. The most heartfelt argument for continuing the war comes from young Troilus. Although he too is tired, he still has adolescent notions of glory. "Nay," he says, "if we talk of reason, let's shut our gates and sleep: manhood and honor should have hare-hearts, would they but fat their thoughts with this cramm'd reason: reason and respect make livers pale and lustihood deject." Not surprisingly, Troilus also has unrealistic expectations of romance, which will be challenged when he falls in love with Cressida, the daughter of the traitor Calchas.
Troilus gets Cressida's uncle Pandarus to arrange a meeting with the maiden, (hence our word "panderer"), and the youngsters have a wild night of passion, complete with promises of devotion and fidelity. When dawn breaks, word comes that Cressida is being exchanged for Antenor, a Trojan prisoner of war. The Greek commander Diomedes (a scowling, dangerous Dooley) has been sent to bring Cressida to Calchas in the Greek camp. Troilus and Cressida have a teary farewell, and Cressida heads off with Diomedes. Quickly surrounded by lecherous Greek generals, she throws in her lot with Diomedes. Troilus has secretly witnessed this betrayal, upon which he swears that a) women suck and b) he's going to open a serious can of whup-ass on Diomedes, first chance.
Meanwhile, older brother Hector has gone into the Greek camp hoping to pick a fight with Achilles. But the Greek generals want to teach Achilles a lesson, so they arrange for the lumbering Ajax to take Hector's challenge. It turns out that Ajax and Hector are cousins, so after a few halfhearted swings, they embrace and there is feasting all about. Hector goes home to Troy unsatisfied, and the next day makes a point of knocking off Patroclus, which rouses Achilles from his pacifism. Because of these provocations, the combatants regain their spirit, and the war again shifts into high gear. The play ends jaggedly, with warriors running back and forth and sickly Pandarus wishing his diseases on the audience.
Most of the humor in this play is mined by Reid Davis and Clive Worsley; the two redefine the word "ooze" in their portrayals of competing grotesques Pandarus and Thersites. Davis' Pandarus looks and acts like a stereotypical '70s porn filmmaker, with his gestures and insinuations. The scene where he finally gets Troilus and Cressida into the same room is especially funny. Worsley, amazingly, here performs Shakespeare for the first time. Scuttling, crawling, capering, but the moment that sticks with me is the one where he spanks himself offstage. In every way, his Thersites is the quintessential Shakespearean fool. Besides Cassandra (Kimberly Wilday, the only actor to reprise her role from Trojan War), he's the only character who really understands what's going on, but unlike the doomed prophet in her straitjacket-like garb, he does not take sides, preferring to heckle everyone equally.
Many of the actors are working with Shotgun for the first time, and the infusion of new faces is refreshing. Rica Anderson plays a quite slutty Helen, Alan Quismorio is the scampering mimic Patroclus, and John Thomas plays an imposing Aeneas. Tyler Fazakerley's Troilus looks like every boy at my high school, with his hands stuffed in the pockets of the leather jacket he wears over Clash-video camo pants. He sounds like those boys too, with his earnest snap judgments. Stephen Bass makes his Shotgun debut in the dual roles of Ajax and Paris; he's strongest as the gorilla-like Ajax, in a portrayal far more sympathetic than in Trojan War; this Ajax is wound up by the Greek generals for their own entertainment. I'm not sure if this is Mark Swetz's first time with Shotgun, but the transition his Achilles makes from laid-back and amused to viciously bloodthirsty is astonishing, aided in part by his excellent voice. David Mayer gives a muscular performance as Hector, more butch and less statesmanlike than Malcolm Brownson's in Trojan War; Mayer manages to deliver lines like "There is no lady of softer bowels, more spongy to suck in the sense of fear ... [than] Hector is," without seeming soft or spongy.
Another Shotgun newcomer, Frieda Naphsica de Lackner, tackles one of the play's crucial ideas: the nature of Cressida. As written, Cressida could be a whore -- the minute she enters the Greek camp, everyone's kissing her. Many of the interpretations I've read do in fact paint her as a lewd, faithless airhead. As portrayed here, Cressida is entering enemy territory and knows full well what awaits a young, attractive woman. If she hooks up with Diomedes, she may have some protection. Troilus harbors a vision of love that can't stand the light of reality; he doesn't understand that Cressida, deprived of choices, betrays him unwillingly. Yes, she could kill herself, but she's no Juliet, and there is no convenient temple of Diana where she can take shelter, as do other Shakespearean heroines stripped of their men. Cressida wants to survive this war; why should she be another casualty of Paris' desire for Helen?
Indeed, most of the characters seem to be asking themselves the same question. Why should we be casualties of a conflict that has raged so long, to so little good purpose? It's the question directors McBrien and Dooley have been asking their audience all season. A play that moldered unseen for centuries has again found a time to which it speaks.
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