By: David Sheward
This summer’s free Shakespeare in the Park season has consisted of two of the Bard’s most difficult works for contemporary audiences. The first offering was a misfiring Taming of the Shrew, which attempted to balance the piece’s inherent sexism with an all-female cast and jiggering of the script. The second piece, the notoriously unwieldy Troilus and Cressida, is much more successful but unfortunately only has a brief run after its official opening was postponed due to the injury of a major cast member.
Ismenia Mendes, Andrew Burnap, John Glover
Troilus and Cressida’s main problem is its sprawling storyline, split between the battlefield and the bedroom. Set during the protracted Trojan War, the title characters are a pair of Trojan lovers separated by the conflict while a battle of egos rages between the greatest fighters on the opposing sides, Achilles and Hector. Prince Troilus discovers his Cressida has been disloyal after she has been taken to the Greek side in an exchange of prisoners and rails against the faithlessness of women as he slaughters his enemies in combat. Meanwhile his brother Hector, the epitome of a noble warrior, is ultimately vanquished by the conniving Greek Achilles. As craft conquers honor and fidelity is crushed, the play ends with the lecherous Pandarus, Cressida’s pimp-like uncle, succumbing to venereal disease and the cynical Thersites, a lowly Greek soldier, cleaning up the mess.
Director Daniel Sullivan overcomes the unwieldy nature of the play with a tight modern-dress production employing Uzis rather than swords and shields. Parallels are drawn between America’s military involvements and the ancient squabble over Helen of Troy’s romantic habits. The love match between the title characters takes a back seat to literally explosive battle scenes and military intrigue.
The army brass dominates here with the grudge match between Bill Heck’s restrained Hector and Louis Cancelmi’s blustering Achilles taking center stage. (Cancelmi took over the role during previews when David Harbour was injured.) The homoerotic undertones in the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus (a sprite-like Tom Pecinka) are brought out in the open and Pandarus (the delightfully lascivious John Glover) is a barely hidden closet case. John Douglas Thompson and Edward James Hyland bring bristling authority to the Greek generals Agamemnon and Nestor. Corey Stoll plays the manipulative Ulysses as a civilian-clad State Department official with a terrifyingly calculated manner. Max Casella’s caustic Thersites and Alex Breaux’s oafish Ajax provide comic relief.
Recent Yale graduate Andrew Burnap is a sturdy Troilus and Ismenia Mendes does her best to justify Cressida’s abrupt change of heart when she switches sides. They make a lovely couple, but the spotlight here is on the battles, emphasizing Shakespeare’s theme of the madness of war.
Troilus and Cressida ***
Aug. 9—14. Free Shakespeare in the Park/The Public Theater at the Delacorte Theatre, Central Park West at W. 81st St., NYC. Tue—Sun, 8 pm. Running time: three hours including intermission. Free. (212) 967-7555. www.publictheater.org.
Photos: Joan Marcus