Yvonne Korshak reviews Off-Broadway, Broadway, Film and Art

Tag: Troilus and Cressida

Review | Cry, Trojans (Troilus & Cressida) | Text by William Shakespeare | Directed by Elizabeth LeCompte | Performing Garage | Wooster Group

… not nice guys …

Diving into disjunction, deconstructing anything and everything, and squeezing ambiguities out of certainties, The Wooster Group has always stayed theatrically steps ahead.  In staging this play they seem to have taken on their ultimate challenge because Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida is already a work of deconstruction … a few centuries avant la lettre.  So what’s left for The Wooster Group to do?  Exuberantly, they add their own disjunctions and ambiguities to Troilus and Cressida for a stimulating take on Shakespeare’s play based on Homer’s epic about that war between the Greeks and Trojans.

The play’s set conjures not ancient Troy but a derelict American Indian camp with a shabby teepee.  A video screen, continuing the set, shows smoke rising from the top of the teepee, setting up the game of competing realities, while at the same time enlarging the meaning of the action.

We’re on the Trojan side of things where proud, graceful and scraggly warriors return from battle, bare-chested, in motley Indian leather.  They cross the stage one-by-one in their individual versions of Indian-like dance steps as the gross sensualist, Pandarus, announces their legendary names: Aeneas, Paris, Hektor … Pandarus, like all the Trojans, speaks with an Irish brogue.  Each warrior wears a quiver that looks like it’s seen better days, with a mask at the top — Janus faced  to their own — a head with the features of an ancient Greek sculpture, deteriorating, empty.

So much for idealized, mythic heroes.   So much for the gods, too — the wobbly, empty heads recall that of Venus, a patron god of Troy and mother of Aeneas.

On the love front, Troilus, one of King Priam’s many sons, is in love with Cressida, a match enabled by Pandarus  (who’s lent his name to enabling sexual match-ups).  After a night of love, word comes that Cressida is to be passed over to the Greeks in a prisoner exchange — a cruel deal managed by her own father, who’s a traitor as well, having defected to the Greeks.  Nice guy.  Troilus defends Cressida — flaccidly — she’s handed over to the other tribe, the Greeks, who speak in English accents in contrast to the Irish Trojans.

The Greeks pass Cressida around like a toy, kissing her, she looks a little staggered but adapts readily and fast ends up in bed with Diomedes, whom she’s willing enough to love, surrendering to him without much fight her love token from weak-willed Troilus.

All the characters are one way or another weak willed and prone to betrayal, with the possible exception of Hektor, but they are stirred by thoughts of glory.  At a Council Meeting-Parliament Meeting–Pow Wow, the Trojans consider abandoning Helen to the Greeks in order to end the war but, in spite of an attempt at reasoning from Hektor and warnings from prophetic Cassandra, they opt in favor of keeping Helen and continuing the war which — in any construction — is a well-known really bad decision.

Video monitors project cuts from a movie about Eskimos, and others from a Hollywood film simultaneously with parallel action on stage, whether  arguments, violence, war councils, domestic tenderness.  The monitors will also switch to project what’s actually happening on the stage (or what’s almost happening — there’s a lot of play at work in this play).  Actors glance occasionally at the monitors to time their gestures for easy-going near simultaneity, linking tech and real, cute, but it’s not over-done.   It’s tantalizing and profound.

The cast is superb as actors, dancers and singers, and skillful at switching from Irish to English when they switch character from Trojan to Greek.  The choreography is varied and luscious in being unhurried.   The costumes and set are part of a single vision: appealing, complex, tacky.  The Indian dress worn by Kate Valk, The Wooster Group’s great actress, has layers and asymmetries that, like the set itself, suggests the long history of transformations of Homer’s story.

The deconstructive battering ram The Wooster Group has brought to other iconic works was less to the point for Troilus & Cressida because Shakespeare was fundamentally already there. Instead they build on the morally dour, unidealized and fragmented view Shakespeare wrote in Troilus and Cressida and underline through tech, and time and place dislocations its inherent generalizations, giving us basically what’s in the play, although it’s sometimes difficult to catch every word because of much going on at once.

Cry, Trojans is more narratively continuous than other Wooster Group productions, less staccato and less eccentrically acted.  In a word, it’s theatrically less radical, and easier to take (at moments of the first half, I wondered “is this easy listening Wooster Group?”).  But the second half jells powerfully.   Gentlest with its roughest play, The Wooster Group remains mind-bending.

Cry, Trojans plays at The Performing Garage in Manhattan’s Tribeca through February 2, 2014.  EXTENDED THROUGH FEBRUARY 15, 2014.   *Note: Cry Trojans will be at St Ann’s Warehouse, Brooklyn, NY, March 24 – April 19, 2015.  For  information, click here: Cry,Trojans St Ann’s

P.S.  For another take on Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, click for Classic Stage’s Age of Iron. 

Review | The Age of Iron from William Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida and Thomas Heywood’s Iron Age | Adapted and Directed by Brian Kulick | Classic Stage Company

(Also pertinent … Cry, Trojans (Shakespeare’s Troilus & Cressida), by The Wooster Group)

Just about the entire legend of the Trojan War is told — or at least “covered” — in The Age of Iron, from Paris’ abduction of Helen to the sack of Troy by the Greeks using their ruse of the “Trojan Horse,” all the way to the suicide of Ajax.  Brian Kulick achieved this mainly by appending to Shakespeare’s play, which is focused on a short period toward the end of the war, the “beginning” and the “end” from another Elizabethan play, Heywood’s Iron Age.   The Age of Iron is beautifully produced and you both hear the poetry of Shakespeare’s language and understand every word.

Even those Shakespearian idioms and figures of speech that are not current in today’s English make sense and have a strong impact as if suddenly one understood “Elizabethan,” a magic I can’t explain and that I found particularly rewarding about this production.

Was it effective to fit the whole story into one drama?  There are pluses and minuses.

Homer begins the Iliad at a time late in the war and concludes it before the war’s end, as does Shakespeare in Troilus and Cressida.  Paris doesn’t slay Achilles with an arrow to his heel in the Iliad, there’s no Trojan Horse, no sack of Troy, no vote among the Greeks over awarding Achilles’ armor, and no suicide of Ajax.  In giving themselves a sharp focus, Homer and Shakespeare knew what they were doing — no surprise there — but there is great adventurousness and effect in Kulick’s telling of the story.

There’s a real satisfaction to getting the complete narrative, or most of it, under one’s belt in a single evening.  And not unimportant, it’s genuine fun to see dramatized the source of those famous figures of speech we use all the time — “Achilles’ heel,” “Trojan horse” (though I’d liked to have seen the horse).  On the other hand, in giving us the whole story, The Age of Iron loses some dramatic impact.  The play is presented in two parts, and part 2, where many people start getting killed off, and eventually we leave Shakespeare and move into Heywood, becomes overlong and somewhat wordy.

Still, the heart of the excellently staged (on a field of sand), acted, and directed production is Shakespeare’s fascinating, perverse play, with his language at full sail.  In Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare turns on the tables on expectations.  The great heroes turn out to be venial:  Achilles doesn’t meet Hector in fair fight but pulls in his gang of Myrmidons to attack and kill him — and then takes full credit!  Ulysses’ sophistry beats Ajax’ heroism.  Troilus and Cressida’s pure love is sullied.  Some call that “problematic,” but to watch the conflicts and interactions of these fully written and oh so human characters is intensely interesting.  What a leap of imagination — the banquet where the leaders of the Greeks and Trojans agree to a truce so that for once they can drink and dine together, and can’t manage to keep the peace for the duration of a single evening!

Troilus and Cressida would have been enough to produce.  A more ambitious and overarching choice was made.  What would off-Broadway be if it wasn’t ready to fulfill new creative visions?  One leaves this banquet fully satisfied.

The Age of Iron plays at the Classic Stage in NYC’s East Village through December 6th. 

The Age of Iron - Troilus & Cressida

Finn Wittrock as Troilus and Dylan Moore as Cressida Photo: T. Charles Erickson

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