Troilus and Cressida

Shakespeare Repertory

at the Ruth Page Theater

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies / When a new planet swims into his ken,” wrote John Keats in his sonnet “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer.” William Shakespeare, writing shortly after the 1598 publication of George Chapman’s pioneering translation of the Iliad, conveyed a distinctly less elevated response. Inspired by Chaucer, Boccaccio, Ovid, and William Caxton’s The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye (the first book printed in English, in 1475) as well as Homer’s epic, Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida systematically drains every ounce of heroism and romance from the saga of the Greek army’s siege of Troy.

In this blistering satire, fair is foul and foul is fair, and all’s foul in love and war. Helen, the Spartan queen whose abduction by the Trojan prince Paris sparked the conflict, is a dippy socialite and Paris’s willing mistress; mocking Christopher Marlowe’s famous phrase, Shakespeare calls Helen a pearl whose price, not face, launched a thousand ships. The Greek hero Achilles is a posturing coward whose slaying of Hector is cold-blooded murder, not the thrilling battle described by Homer. Ulysses and Agamemnon’s plot to shame the temperamental outsider Achilles into disciplined submission is played out with the ludicrous inanity of A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s rude mechanicals rehearsing “Pyramus and Thisbe.” Troilus, the younger brother of Hector and Paris–sort of the Teddy Kennedy of his day–is not the idealized lover of chivalric fantasy but a naive cluck who interprets a one-night stand with the beautiful but inconstant Cressida as a lasting love affair–then turns against all women when he’s disillusioned. And instead of a bardic poet invoking the muse to inspire him, Shakespeare gives us the syphilitic panderer Pandarus, who brings the play to its bitterly ironic conclusion by informing the “traitors and bawds” in the audience that when he dies he’ll “bequeath you my diseases.”

It’s a sour world that Shakespeare portrays, full of hypocrisy and infidelity and self-deception and just plain stupidity–a world that glamorizes the “hot deeds” of love and battle while wallowing in shameful treachery and shallow sensuality–and the Trojan War is its emblem: a seven-year standoff prompted by sexual rivalry and finally won dishonorably, using the deception of Ulysses’ hollow horse. The play has its lyrical passages, such as Troilus’s enraptured anticipation of making love with Cressida (“I am giddy. Expectation whirls me round. / Th’ imaginary relish is so sweet / That it enchants my sense”). But the script is more memorable for the sardonic sting of Pandarus’s assessment of Helen and Paris as “a generation of vipers” or the “spiteful execrations” of Achilles’ servant Thersites (“Lechery, lechery! Still wars and lechery! Nothing else holds fashion. A burning devil take them”). While some of Shakespeare’s satire reflects his society’s pro-Trojan biases–the Elizabethan English believed they were descended from the Trojan general Aeneas–he punctures targets on all sides: his overriding themes are the failures of human nature in general and the folly of men in their pursuit of false victories in particular.

Which makes Troilus and Cressida one of Shakespeare’s least popular plays. Utterly lacking in tragic exaltation, nationalistic spirit, cheery comedy, and probing complexity, this dark, didactic assault on male illusions was seldom performed in its own time or for 300 years after. Though modern audiences are more receptive to its harshly realistic view of moral relativism and “the chance of war,” it certainly doesn’t show up on most theaters’ lists of top-ten Shakespearean hits. But Shakespeare Repertory is an exception. Artistic director Barbara Gaines says that “if there’s one play I will direct over and over again, it’s this one,” and that’s welcome news. This nearly perfect production–marred by one serious flaw–shows that even scabrous Shakespeare can be thrilling and thought-provoking entertainment in the right hands.

Once again, Gaines and her first-rate creative team combine visual spectacle with detailed intimacy, while her superbly chosen actors combine eloquent articulation with quirky intelligence to make the antique language live. Once again, Gaines displays an uncanny sense of when to support the text and when to challenge or lightly spoof it, allowing us to consider both the inconsistencies and insights that make Shakespeare fascinating theater as well as great literature. Troilus and Cressida may not sell as many tickets as the more popular canon fodder; but in a city where it seems every other young company wants to try its hand at a royalty-free classic, the last thing we need is another Hamlet or Juliet or Bottom or Lady Macbeth. A nasty rarity like Troilus and Cressida may not go down as smoothly, but it’s got plenty to say about Shakespeare and our own world.

This Troilus and Cressida features gorgeous, slightly campy costumes by Nan Cibula-Jenkins–creamy white tights with prominently padded codpieces for the Trojans, a rough-hewn, brown leather look for the Greeks–and a simple, striking set by Michael S. Philippi, dominated by an overhanging net in which Troilus is finally snared by jealousy. Michael Bodeen’s music recalls Mikis Theodorakis’s 1960s film sound tracks, with their pulsing percussion and clattering bouzoukis. The loud, strutting sword fights, staged by David Wooley and Bruce A. Young, are a show in themselves, as are Richard Jarvie’s wigs: check out the ass-length heavy-metal mane Young wears as a preening, pantherlike Achilles. Other standouts in the crack acting ensemble are handsome Robert Petkoff as a fiery Troilus; Deborah Staples’s Cressida, a sensual but inexperienced young woman with ultimately ruinous pretensions to worldliness (the passionate anger of Staples’s final speech helps undercut the misogynistic labeling of her fickleness as typical of women); Peter Aylward’s lusty, sardonic Diomedes, the Greek whose seduction of Cressida turns Troilus against her; Robert Scogin as Thersites, using a raven’s croak to emphasize the vicious mockery of his lines; Howard Witt’s smarmy King Leer of a Pandarus; Daniel Allar, playing the warrior Ajax as an overweight refugee from TV wrestling; and Greg Vinkler as the windy schemer Ulysses.

The one bothersome note is Scott Parkinson as pretty Patroclus, whose death in battle prompts his lover Achilles to slaughter Hector in revenge. Living down to the epithet “Achilles’ bitch,” used by a world that demeans love even as it pretends to exalt it, Parkinson’s Patroclus flounces around as if he’d just left a Bette Davis impersonators’ contest. I have no quarrel with Parkinson, whose performance is as surefooted as his colleagues’, but with the hackneyed effeminacy forced on him by the director. I doubt if Gaines would brandish a Jewish or black cliche so carelessly, and she’s shown herself quite capable of distancing herself from the prejudice Shakespeare’s plays display toward women. As it happens, Patroclus and Achilles’ loving loyalty is one of the few redeeming decencies in the corrupt world of Troilus and Cressida; dragging it down to the level of every other transaction might be a valid interpretation, but relying on shrill stereotype is simple laziness–a black mark on an otherwise superb production.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo.