TROJAN HORESPOWER This Actors' Shakespeare Project production cracks the Homeric myth of
Troilus and Cressida like an egg, revealing its cynical innards.
"All's false in love and war" might be a maxim for Troilus and Cressida (presented by Actors' Shakespeare Project at the Modern Theatre through May 20). In the rarely produced, genre-jumbling work, the Bard takes Homer and just knocks the heroic stuffing out of him. "All the argument," growls Greek malcontent Thersites of the Trojan War, "is a whore and a cuckold." So much for the glory and sacrifice chronicled in The Iliad and reiterated by Chapman and Chaucer. In Shakespeare's treatment, that myth is cracked like an egg — as it is in Tina Packer's mostly modern-dress production, which begins and ends with a stirring martial tableau, above which some empty, shining armor floats. In between, we peep behind the pose at the cynical, manipulative innards of bloody conflict and romance.
Critic Marjorie Garber points to the bitter echoes in Troilus and Cressida of love tragedies Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra. Trojan prince Troilus seethes with idealized lust for the comely Cressida, whose father, the seer Calchas, has defected to the Greeks. But here the couple's go-between, the lady's uncle, Pandarus, is more bawdy sex trafficker than Juliet's nurse. And the couple is not for the ages. Moreover, in some prescient — if fervent — oaths, each prophesies his or her own legend in the making (as does Pandarus).
Meanwhile in the Greek camp, uber-warrior Achilles has abandoned the fight and lolls in bed with his battle-squeamish "male varlet," Patroclus, who augments his sexual charms with dead-on impressions of the Greek brass. And when the play's one noble character, Trojan prince Hector, issues a challenge to one-on-one combat, the pragmatic Ulysses suggests his team send knuckleheaded muscleman Ajax in order to light a fire under the indolent Achilles.
Bard black-belt Packer, founding artistic director of Lenox-based Shakespeare & Company, understands the astringent ironies of the play, and where many mountings of Shakespeare fizzle — in the battle scenes — her Troilus picks up ritualistic steam (the fights are choreographed by "violence designer" Ted Hewlett). Still, I wish the production were less relentlessly declamatory. The Modern, after all, seats fewer than 200 people. But here, even the love scenes burn with more anger and anxious release than with the tender adamancy that would render the severing of Troilus and Cressida — he progressing to disillusion and righteous wrath, she to the discovery of her wantonness — more poignant. The director must want to convey how pent-up everyone is after seven years of camping out or laying low, trooping out to whack at one another with swords and sticks.
But true to form, Packer tells the unpleasant story clearly. And the famed set pieces — Ulysses's defense of order over chaos, the Trojan consideration of reason versus honor in the matter of holding on to Helen — are eloquently laid out. I defy you not to get what's happening — and what Shakespeare, in a pretty nasty mood, thinks about it.