Trojan Love 

Achilles and Patroclus is not your high school Homer.

According to Homer, the Trojan War lasted ten years. Hopefully the war on Iraq won't last as long, because Berkeley theater companies will soon run out of variations on Homer's Iliad and related classics to use as antiwar messages. To a list that includes Lysistrata, all three parts of The Oresteia, Iphigenia at Aulis, Troilus and Cressida, There Will Be No Trojan War, and even, to a lesser extent, Phaedra, The Persians, and Ariel, which retold the Iphigenia story, add now the balanced, heartbreaking Achilles and Patroclus from CentralWorks. While it's been an unspeakable war, it's been a great few years for audiences plumbing the Greek depths.

This new work explores a pivotal Homeric question that has gotten short shrift in the past. In The Iliad, King Agamemnon was not allowed to keep his Trojan War hostage Chryseis, so he consoled himself with Achilles' prize, Briseis, which pissed off the warrior so much that he refused to fight any longer. Achilles and Patroclus starts in another place altogether: the palace of King Mynes of Lynessus, whom Achilles slays right up front. Instead of having Queen Briseis brought to the warrior's tent, writer Gary Graves instead brings Achilles to Briseis, along with his friend Patroclus, and Briseis' half-sister Kassandra. The four attempt to escape the war, but eventually it will come to them, in the form of Agamemnon (Matthew Joseph, as a menacingly soft-voiced bobblehead of a commanding officer).

Director Chris Herold has assembled a young, attractive cast composed entirely of CentralWorks newcomers. It's a cast of thousands by the company's standards; seeing five people, each representing just a single character, versus fewer people playing multiple roles. And the story really moves: Graves can get a little ponderous, but this one is dynamic and shows off his versatility. Although one audience member was overheard suggesting that there was too much foul language, it seemed appropriate to the military theme, especially for men who have battled pointlessly for a decade.

And as if to address last week's complaint about there not being enough interesting gay or bisexual characters in East Bay theater, this play also features hot boy-on-boy action as it asks whether The Iliad's Achilles and Patroclus were more than just friends. Homer subtly suggested it, Plato took it for granted, but high school teachers are generally quick to insist that the relationship was strictly camaraderie. In Gary Graves' collaborative CentralWorks show, the two are at least bi, and there's a woman in there too. For a too-brief period, the three have a wonderful time while the soldiers back at camp are scandalized and calling on the gods to put the wheels back on a stalled-out war.

Briseis is all the hottie you'd expect; bundled with the palace and the olive groves, you can see why a man -- or men -- would be inspired to leave behind their Myrmidons for her. But sultry Jessica Camacho doesn't play Briseis as either slut or slave. Her explanation of why she's siding with Achilles over her freshly murdered husband rings true as she accuses Mynes of gambling, whoring, and letting the fields rot.

Cole Smith's Achilles has one hell of a journey, from surly soldier to playful lover to sensitive spiritual guy and peace activist -- "This isn't about honor; this is about money, and power," he rails at Agamemnon. "You want to control the straits" -- to his eventual descent into madness and vengeance. But despite a shaky start opening night, Smith moves smoothly through the shifts, culminating in a scene of terrible outrage after Patroclus has died fighting in his friend's stead. "Know me, little people; I am the destroyer of worlds," he growls as Kassandra names his dead one by one, accompanied by graphic sound effects.

Pamela Davis' Kassandra is both a prophet and a bit of a theatrical in-joke. She's raging hard here, as Cassandras do, but it looks different when everyone else is in contemporary dress and she's in timeless baggy saggy black things. It is suggested that she has escaped an institution to come to Briseis -- either that or another play altogether, one where all of the characters wear rags and howl in verse. Her spells are clearly an embarrassment to the family, as evidenced by Briseis' reactions, who often snaps, "Will you stop already?" It's pretty funny if you've seen this character before; she's sort of the Greeks' sacred cow, and it's amusing to watch someone cut off a slice -- especially the actress herself.

In Shakespeare's take on The Iliad, Troilus and Cressida, Patroclus is represented as putting on Achilles' armor and taking the field as Achilles because he seeks to protect his friend. Such was not Homer's intent, nor is it the case here. Graves' Patroclus, played as a classic wholesome rangy Midwestern sort by Alex Klein, dons Achilles' armor because he feels honor-bound to lead the Myrmidons Achilles has abandoned. Also true to Homer, Klein's Patroclus is basically a gentle, humane soul. In Homer, Patroclus is more plot device than person. Here, he's a person visibly torn between duty and love. "Men die for foolish things sometimes," he pleads with Achilles. "I took a vow." It's terrible that there's no way out for these kids.

Here the gods are handled with an uneasiness well suited to the contemporary setting. Kassandra totally believes she hears them, but if they were really speaking to her, wouldn't they tell her to focus on Patroclus, whose action ultimately dooms Troy? And the other characters treat her the way modern folk tend to deal with people who claim to hear voices ("Your gods can kiss my ass," Achilles tells Kassandra at their first meeting). Eventually Achilles starts to invoke Zeus, but he clearly has gone around the bend. This story has a very human scale; where the characters grapple with duty, honor, and commitment to an ideal in the face of disillusionment.

This is gloves-off stuff, hard words, hard sounds, hard lighting. It follows Homer enough to satisfy the scholarly, while addressing certain questions anew. This is not your high school Homer, all rosy-fingered dawn and wine-dark sea. Intensely realized, funny, and very sad by turns, Achilles and Patroclus is a complex, modern love story.


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