9/13/2023 TROILUS AND CRESSIDA Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse
CLAPPER-CLAWED WITH PALMS OF THE VULGAR
(Sloth Alert: A Bit Too Much of this is self-plagiarized from my reaction to the Tavern’s 2013 staging of this. But then again, it’s been ten years – just as long as the Trojan War itself.)
Troilus and Cressida is a seldom-performed, seldom-read entry in the Shakespearean canon that is built on contradiction. It is a cynical romance, an epic story drained of heroism (and gods), an unfamiliar portrait of familiar characters of legend, a comedy of few laughs, a tragedy with no tears, a lot of talk about honor from characters whose actions show little of it. It was so seldom performed that an early (1609) printed edition contained a statement that it was "never staled with the stage, never clapper-clawed with the palms of the vulgar" (obviously penned by an early Jacobean denizen of the "intellectual elite.").
In fact, its themes and plot are totally antithetical to the expectations of the Elizabethan audiences, and a suggested "sequel" was never realized. Its attitude towards war and heroism finally found footing in the zeitgeist(s) of the twentieth century, and it is finding new (albeit limited) popularity.
Come with me back to the time of the Trojan War. All of our favorite Greeks and Trojans are here -- Achilles, Ulysses, Cassandra, Priam, Andromache, Aeneas, Agamemnon, Hector, Ajax, Yadda, Yadda, and Yadda. The war has reached a state of inertia wherein the root cause is long forgotten, long-ignored; between battles the foes gather for mutual admiration and feasting. Achilles has withdrawn from the battle to lounge in his tent with boy-toy Patroclus. And the actual fighting is passionless, wallowing in welcome stalemate.
Priam's youngest son, Troilus, has developed a healthy lust for Cressida, daughter of a Trojan priest, who has defected to the Greek camp. Cressida's sleazy uncle, Pandarus, arranges a liaison -- not a marriage or a betrothal, mind you, but a middle-of-the-night sheets-and-sweat encounter with all that that implies. Is it any wonder Pandarus’ name is the source of the word “pander?” Almost immediately, Cressida is forced to join her father in a "prisoner exchange," and (apparently) willingly "hooks up" with her Greek "protector."
Sadness, battle, and (unheroic) death ensue, though both title characters remain alive but apart. Even the battle scenes are filled with cynicism and irony - a "planned" encounter between Ajax and Hector ends with an embrace and an avowal of kinship and respect, and Hector's final fate is definitely not what you may remember from the Iliad (or the Brad Pitt movie).
In these days of "easy wars(*)" that seem to have momentum and inertia all their own, the play reads and resonates as relevant, timely, and compelling.
What I'm saying is that I'm especially receptive to the ambivalences and ambiguities on display here. It doesn't hurt that Cressida is written (and performed) with a lot of dimension (and spunk) that makes her "betrayal" seem very not-what-it-seems, that makes her attraction to Troilus not as insincere as a surface-level reading suggests, that makes her reaction to her "exile" credible and moving. It doesn't hurt that the "heroes" are filled with character and explicitness, that they don't rely on our expectations from other works. It doesn't hurt that Ulysses' long-winded (and they are LONG winded) speeches are filled with some of Shakespeare's most beautiful language.
What really sets this production apart from the 2013 staging is an ensemble, a cast that seems to hit every note right and a staging that is dynamic and filled with life and passion. Kenneth Wigley and Claire F. Martin are young and passionate in the title roles, wearing their impulsive lust/love on their sleeves, their reticence to open up and connect painful to ponder.
The “Heroes” of the war are ALL given clay feet: Achilles (Benedetto Robinson) is a pompous ass who would rather lounge all day with Patroclus (Tyshawn Gooden) than go into battle. Paris is a shallow rake who is happy to sacrifice so many Greek and Trojan lives to satisfy his lusts. Ajax (Vinnie Mascola) is a rage-filled oaf, taking umbrage at the slightest (perceived) slight. Menelaus (David Rucker III) is a sycophant and a coward. Hector (Andrew Houchins), Agamemnon (Cameryn Richardson), and Ulysses (Mary Ruth Ralston) come off the best, clever and commanding, and believable leaders.
I could quibble about some of the role doubling – these actors are all very distinctive-looking, and their various costumes are very similar, so there is a bit of confusion as to which characters we’re seeing; this is especially true as the warring camps intermingle in a feast of temporary détente. Sometimes an effort is made to differentiate – Jeff Watkins wears an elegant wig as Priam, for example, but not as Nestor (and Priam’s costume is all elegantly regal while Nestor’s is not). This becomes an issue when a main character such as Paris is seen later as a servant, or Menelaus is suddenly in Troy as another of Priam’s many sons. And Vinnie Mascola is so massive, I semi-sorta-kinda wish he had some sort of costume or wig or mannerism to differentiate his Ajax from his Antenor. Or at least a name tag.
But, on the other hand, this character confusion may be purely intentional by director Jemma Alix Levy, to underscore the theme of war’s futility and the interchangeability of the combatants. In any case, it was more an irritant than a show-stopping objection.
Which, of course, brings me to some more cast standouts – Adam King is a treat as the sleazy Pandarus, dominating the stage and wearing his sarcasm as if it were armor. He is a true delight and I really enjoyed being repulsed by him. I also liked Samanatha Lancaster’s turn as Aeneas (someone should write a book about that character), Rivka Levin’s angry turn as Hector’s wife Andromache, Bailey Frankenberg’s dual turns as the mad (or at least obsessed) Cassandra and the brilliantly seductive Helen (I was actually surprised to see it was the same actress), and, especially Antonia LaChe’s delightful turn as the clever and saucy servant Thersites.
This was a well-directed, well-thought-out mounting of the play, clarifying a lot of moments my vague memory of the text left muddy, fleshing out characters and scenes, and nailing all the emotional high and low points.
If the ending leaves most people (including myself) a tad WTF?, well, that was the intent -- even all these centuries later, the heroes of Troy don't wear feet-of-clay particularly well, sardonic romance can oh-so-unsatisfying. I was also disappointed the final Pandarus speech was cut – I respond so well to the cynicism of having that character have the final word – but I also appreciated that we were spared the ultimate fates of the title pair – Troilus is traditionally known to have been murdered by Achilles in the manner that Shakespeare shows us the fate of Hector, but Cressida’s fate has never appeared in any work, so far as I know. She has been traditionally the archetype of the “faithless lover,” but Shakespeare’s text is maddingly ambiguous about this – and Claire Martin’s performance intelligently sways that ambiguity to the side of not-so-faithless. And for a play so saturated in ambivalences and contradictions, a traditional "satisfying" ending would be a bit, well, unsatisfying.
But, at least, this remarkable play is once again "staled with the stage, finally clapper-clawed with the palms of the vulgar." Consider my palms considerably "clapper-clawed!"
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com #ShakespeareTavern #TroilusAndCressida)
* By "easy wars," I mean no disrespect to those who risked their lives in the Middle East. I mean that today, war is something that "other people's children" fight, that we are asked to make no sacrifices for (either through rationing, bonds, or even increased taxes), that only those directly involved actually worry about.