Chicago Shakespeare Repertory

at the Ruth Page Theatre

You won’t get many opportunities to see Troilus and Cressida performed. Some would say, for good reason. And there’s little argument among Shakespeare fans that this is one of the most awkward and flawed of the complete works. It’s dramatically uneven and ambiguous in tone. As far back as the time when editors were arranging the first folios, there was some confusion as to whether this was a history or a tragedy. It’s called a history play, but it violates Elizabethan decorum by making history the subject of comic ridicule. And it’s not a tragedy, since Shakespeare found nothing heroic or noble in this story of the Trojan War. Yet for all its faults and garbled intentions, Troilus and Cressida is unique, if only because it’s the bastard child of Shakespeare’s imagination.

This is a cynical play, a satire of chivalry. As the leprous fool Thersites says as he scurries across that historic battlefield: “Lechery, lechery; still wars and lechery; nothing else holds fashion.” You get the feeling that Shakespeare developed a wild and ingrown hair around the turn of the century, when he wrote Troilus and Cressida. It’s as if Shakespeare turned a cold eye on human nature, and the vision that appeared no longer sustained the glory of human potential but rather settled on the sick and puling beast that boasted God’s own image. This is the dark side of the bard, nasty and almost punk.

Whatever the weirdness or disillusionment that led Shakespeare to write Troilus and Cressida, it was an unsatisfactorily manifested vision. Because this play has all the artistic integrity of an Eddie Murphy film: part smut, part comedy, part body count, part love story, etc. And for this very reason, I think Troilus and Cressida–of all Shakespeare’s plays–requires some interpretation in production. Interpretations, adaptations, and other half-baked attempts to improve upon Shakespeare usually make me want to puke. But in this case, something has to be done. As far as I can tell, the Chicago Shakespeare Repertory aren’t the folks for the job.

At first, though, the production looks like it has some direction in mind. The set is spacious, excellently illuminated, and the costumes are at least interesting. Priam’s sons are mostly blond, which creates this amusing impression of the Trojan royal family as a tribe of surf Nazis. But the Greeks, from Agamemnon on down, are swarthy and crusty, having camped outside Troy for seven years. A couple Greek women sleaze around on all fours. There’s an air of lax military discipline, and an aroma of casual, disinterested sex. Still, the most sharply focused expression of Shakespeare’s jaundiced attitude is in act one, scene two. Not the entire scene, mind you, with all that punning and pimping dialogue between Pandarus and Cressida, but the part where Troy’s heroes parade home from a hard day at the war. One blond warrior after another struts by, and Pandarus extols their virtues. But it’s a parade of narcissism, bogus valor, false humility, degenerate pride, and chivalry for fun and profit. It’s very sarcastic, and very funny.

For some reason, however, the satire frays and the thread is broken. The play soon becomes a free-for-all of low comedy, uncertain posturing, and what Hamlet called tearing a passion to tatters. Granted, there are some nice moments of low comedy. Most of them belong here to Michael Nash, whose portrait of the dull-witted Ajax is an inspired blend of a lobotomized Hell’s Angel and Bluto the sailor. As for uncertain posturing, Lee Muffin, as the aged Nestor, might as well be playing Polonius or Gabby Hayes. And at the tattered end of the spectrum is Kevin Gudahl (as Troilus himself), who reminds me of Michael York in the love scenes and Peter O’Toole on the battlefield. So, you see, the ensemble breaks down and the cast starts turning in a Whitman’s Sampler of performances when the interpretation is lost.

Director Barbara Gaines should be credited with a promising, if unfulfilling, first act. From then on, the loose ends of the production get away from her. That’s too bad, because it’s right about act two that your ear tunes in to Elizabethan verse and you’re able to make approximate sense out of what people are saying. Basic comprehension is usually a problem with Shakespearean dialogue. It doesn’t help to have actors like Bernie Landis (as Pandarus) who complement dialogue with gratuitous gestures, illustrating dubious puns and generally performing for the deaf in semaphore. And it positively hurts when an actor (Gregory Alan-Williams as Achilles) forces verse through what sounds like a mouthful of mashed potatoes. Yet beyond simple comprehension lies interpretation–beyond the glitter of language and spectacle, beyond even the unresolved ambiguity of this script–without which there’s only sound and fury.

That’s ironic, since sound and fury is what Troilus and Cressida is all about. War is presented as a bloody, senseless contest of pride without honor. The abduction of Helen, which started it all, is openly admitted to be an unworthy cause by both sides. Love doesn’t smell any fairer. All Troilus is concerned with is sexual conquest and ownership. And Cressida, well, a gal’s got to do what a gal’s got to do. They’re a pathetic couple, but not tragic. Even the great Greek champion, Achilles, only stirs from his tent as his laurels begin to wilt, and he only returns to battle when his male lover is butchered. War, pride, love, lust, everything is twisted and confused.

The actor who makes the most sense of it all is Jeanette Schwaba, who plays both Helen and Cassandra. Her Helen is a flat-out bimbo, which is just what the Trojan War ordered. Cassandra is played as a hooting, raving madwoman. This is no sad-eyed Ophelia on her way down to the river, but more like Tina Turner as the Acid Queen in Tommy. Both of Schwaba’s characterizations have a demented, satirical impact consistent with that impression created in the act-one parade of heroes. If the rest of the cast could balance Shakespeare’s cynicism with a sense of humor of this sort–and not a barrage of stupid puns–this 400-year-old bomb could possibly be salvaged.

As is, it’s a long haul through one of the great master’s unfinished works. I wouldn’t recommend this show to a friend, but then none of my friends are Shakespeare fanatics. Those of you who are will see many of the things you’re used to seeing (gray plastic armor and unconvincingly choreographed fight scenes) and hear the things you’re used to hearing (recorded trumpet flourishes and resonant diphthongs). You’ll even enjoy a relatively skilled caliber of acting, that is, relative to other American productions of Shakespeare. And–far more uncommon–although this production fails to cull and nourish it, you’ll see Shakespeare, one of the most buoyant and hardy souls in English literature, gag a little on his own ideals. And if you see that, you can see the Jacobeans following the Elizabethans, as the night follows the day.