Sunday, October 13, 2013

Troilus and Cressida at the American Shakespeare Center

The American Shakespeare Center has returned to its staging roots for its 25th Anniversary Season production of William Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida.  This play, so rarely performed, receives a revelatory mounting at the Blackfriars' Playhouse. The American Shakespeare Center has long embraced the original staging practices of Early Modern Theatre. They famously "do it with the lights on." The audience has the opportunity to sit both on the stage and above it. They use only a few props and furnishings to evoke time and place. Yet, when the American Shakespeare Center began 25 seasons ago as the touring company Shenandoah Shakespeare Express, they faced additional challenges. By honoring those early conditions, Troilus and Cressida comes alive with an exuberant production that will leave you pondering the mess that is love and loss in a long and futile war.

As Artistic Director Jim Warren states in his director's notes, he informed the actors that they would be producing Troilus and Cressida as if they did not have the luxury of a discovery space or a backstage area. The actors when they are not on stage stay seated around the stage watching the action, requiring costume changes to be made in full view of the audience. The aisles and walls surrounding the stage are utilized as additional entrances and exits thereby truly immersing the audience in the action. Costume Designer Victoria Depew clads the actors in basic grey tunics and cut-off pants (Cressida wears a skirt). The actors don minimal additional costume pieces, forest green for the Greeks and rustic red for the Trojans, those pieces instantly imposing the characters status, whether the regal general Agamemnon or the elderly warrior, Nestor.

These choices free the actors to even more embrace Shakespeare's text. Troilus and Cressida is a famously messy play. It takes place in the seventh year of the Trojan War, yet focuses more on the relationships of the various characters rather than on mighty battle scenes. The play itself is rife with raucous humor, most of it balancing the tightrope between PG-13 and R. Yet, the tragic elements are equally raucous. This is a story filled with deep emotional passion, whether it is the shy and gentle love story that anchors the first half of the play or the wounds of loss and betrayal when that love is torn asunder by the realities of war.

The characters of Troilus and Cressida simply anchor the tale. They compete with the drama going on in both the Greek and Trojan war camps. At the center of that drama is the character of Achilles. Benjamin Curns evokes the pride and ego of Greece's greatest warrior who has decided that he has had enough of war and will fight no longer. When finally goaded into battle by the death of his close companion, Patroclus, Mr. Curns' great warrior first presents himself as the chivalric hero of legend, then shatters that persona as he fights the Trojans' noble Prince Hector.

Chris Johnston's Prince Hector carries himself with a noble bearing. One step across the stage and the audience knows that here is a warrior that is the embodiment of knightly courtesy, whose word is golden. Equally noble is the brave Aeneas, yet, Tim Sailer barely keeps his contempt of the Greeks in check. Josh Innerst's Agamemnon never lets you forget that he is a King. Rene Thornton, Jr. was absent from this performance. In his stead, veteran company member Daniel Kennedy took on the role of Ulysses with script in hand, managing to still create the wise and wily warrior who will eventually win the war and suffer the consequences on his long journey home. Dylan Paul is both the cowardly, indolent Paris who started this mess and then,  with the addition of a cane and head cloth,completely transforms into the elderly firebrand Nestor.

John Harrell is the brash blowhard Greek warrior Ajax, naively accepting the challenge to battle Prince Hector not knowing that he is being used to shame Achilles into action. Mr. Harrell also practically steals the production in the famous role of Pandarus, Uncle to Cressida, who lasciviously arranges his niece's love affair with Prince Troilus. Mr. Harrell does not shy away from the rather naughty remarks that Pandarus teases the young couple with both before and after they consummate their union.

Three of the four ladies in the acting company have been given the opportunity to portray three vital male characters. Emily Brown is the proud young companion of Achilles, Patroclus, deftly ignoring the snide remarks that hint that this relationship is rather more than boon companions. Tracie Thomason is given the noble Greek Diomedes who becomes the protector and seducer of Cressida when she is traded to the Greek camp. There is no unease from the audience at this rather intimate portrayal which is a testament to Ms.Thomason's full commitment to the character's story.

Allison Glenzer explodes with energy every time she takes the stage as the Greek commentator, Thersites. Thersites is the clown character, but is no ordinary fool. A man of honest and biting wit, Thersites does not hold back whether telling Achilles off for ignoring his duties on the battlefield or helping to lift the veil from the lovestruck Troilus' eyes.

Cressida may have the smallest number of lines of any of the title characters in Shakespeare's plays. Yet, Lee Fitzpatrick creates a true enigma. Her stage time is brief. Cressida must go from a shy and awkward young woman who deeply loves her Prince, yet foreshadowing her own betrayal of that love in heartrending honesty. When traded to the Greeks, Cressida becomes almost a new character. It is a testament to both Ms. Fitzpatrick and her director that they do not try to justify this abrupt change in Cressida's nature simply allowing the text to dictate the character's behavior. Ms. Fitzpatrick benefits by the decision to have the actors sit upon the stage when not performing. Whether being praised or condemned particularly by the man she loves, Ms. Fitzpatrick openly wears her character's emotional responses bravely.

Gregory Jon Phelps must also travel a complex path as Troilus. Another warrior who eschews the battlefield, Mr. Phelps is dealt a character who is young, naive and awkward in wooing and then devastated by the betrayal of his false Cressida.  Mr. Phelps then makes Troilus' change into bloodthirsty avenger justified. His Troilus is a brash young man dictated by his passions whether the passions of love or the brimstone of war.

Is Troilus and Cressida a history? A tragedy? A great satire of war? In truth it is a hot mess. There is no clean resolution to any part of the story. The audience is left with an abrupt ending that feels unsatisfactory. We want confrontation between the sundered lovers. We want revenge for noble Hector's death. We want catharsis. We are given unanswered questions. What is the greatest gift of this production is Artistic Director's Jim Warren decision to simply allow the text to speak for itself. The audience is responsible for seeking out their own interpretation of what has transpired in this two and a half hour's traffic upon the Blackfriars' stage.

William Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida is being performed at The American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia in repertory with Romeo and Juliet, Alls Well That Ends Well, Oliver Goldsmith's She Stoops To Conquer and Bob Carlton's Return to the Forbidden Planet through November 30, 2013. For tickets and other performance information please visit