Troilus and Cressida is one of Shakespeare’s least-read, least-performed, least-understood, and least-appreciated plays. Sometimes considered one of the histories, sometimes considered a tragedy, and at times funny enough to be thought of as a very strange comedy, it tends to be classed as a “problem play,” like Measure for Measure and A Winter’s Tale, and it’s certainly problematic. A tale of the becalming and then the revving up of the Trojan War in its seventh year, its portrait of frankly venal Greeks and Trojans (all the big names from The Iliad, with Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde serving as a source, too) is played out against the title characters’ story of doomed love. Two seemingly minor roles almost steal the Montford Park Players’ show: Pandarus (David Mycoff), Cressida’s uncle and one of the most depraved panderers in theatrical history, and Thersites (Ryan Madden), a Greek servant and fool whose laugh-inducing, bitter wisdom is frequently thought to represent Shakespeare’s personal worldview at this late stage of his career.
The resulting mishmash of tones made this an unpopular play in Shakespeare’s time (if, in fact, it was ever performed in his lifetime), and not until the twentieth century did producers see possibilities in a script now perceived as modern, even “avant-garde.” Still, the play continues to puzzle, as if its disparate pieces could never be forged into a coherent whole. That whole, though, can be descried, and is pointed to by Thersites’ line, “and war and lechery confound all!” The plot, such as it is, converges on parallel storylines about one Greek and one Trojan—Achilles (Darren Marshall) and Troilus (Jonathan Milner)—too besotted with love to care about war, until their loves—Patroclus (Trinity Smith, cross-dressed) and Cressida (Magdalen Zinky)—are undone. Director Jason Williams appears to understand this, and it gives his production greater clarity than one might expect.
Clarity is a quality Williams mercifully seeks and, for the most part, achieves. His postmodernist tendency to heighten rather than minimize contrasts throws all the characterizations into high relief, which helps us to see what’s really going on but also tends toward parody, which produces laughter but undercuts belief. So, for instance, when Travis Kelley’s big, buffoonish Greek Ajax willingly takes on Matt Tavener’s Trojan Hector in one-on-one combat (because Achilles, too busy in his tent with Patroclus, refuses), Ajax is comically revealed fully to be the dimwit his fellow Greeks describe and we are entertained. But we are never able to take these Greeks or Trojans seriously, so Shakespeare’s unpleasant portrait of them is undermined.
Similarly, the early parade of Greek heroes is played to the audience self-consciously and campily, which amuses but distances us from any sense of how these warriors were worshiped, however unworthy they may have been. Williams himself, as the cuckold Menelaus, wins laughter with his portrait of an abashed loser, but should Menelaus, like Ajax, simply be a clown? And though a raunchy make-out scene between Paris (Scott Keel) and Helen (Trinity Smith again, as a woman) suggests why their love might have led to this war, as well as revealing plausible aspects of debauched court life in Troy, it also leaps out of the play into a mesmerizing world of its own, and overmatches the ultra-important passion of Troilus and Cressida, who seem comparatively uncomfortable when they embrace.
Though Shakespeare’s language is handled especially well by Mycoff, Marshall, Madden, and Nathan Adams in a surprisingly sympathetic reading of the minor part of the Trojan ruler Priam, the other players are less consistent, making it advisable that attendees read the script before heading to the park. It must also be said that some nontraditional casting of women in men’s roles is less than successful. In particular, though Smith is a more-than-capable performer, casting her as Achilles’ male lover—a key element of the story—confuses far more than it illumines, if it illumines at all.
In the end, this production of Troilus and Cressida is as mixed a bag as the play itself. But, as with the Shakespeare original, one is grateful for it.
Troilus and Cressida, by William Shakespeare. Director: Jason Williams. Assistant Director: Matt Burke. Costume Designer: Jill Ehrsam. Lighting Designer: Jason Williams. Props Mistress: Sarah Adams. Fight Choreographer: Hamilton Goodman. Technical Director: Kenn Kirby. Stage Manager: Marissa Mello. With Darren Marshall (Achilles), Esha Grover (Aeneas, Myrmidon), David Broshar (Agamemnon), Travis Kelley (Ajax), Dwight Chiles (Alexander, Antenor, Calchas), Mandy Phillips (Andromache, Myrmidon), Lochlan Angle (Troilus’ Boy), Brooke Whitcomb (Cassandra, Myrmidon), Magdalen Zinky (Cressida, Myrmidon), Chris Stanton (Diomedes), Matt Tavener (Hector), Trinity Smith (Helen, Patroclus, Myrmidon, Helenus), Nathan Adams (Priam, Margarelon), Jason Williams (Menelaus), Hamilton Goodman (Nestor), Pandarus (David Mycoff), Paris (Scott Keel), Kaitlin Jencks (Servant 1, Myrmidon), Rhianna Parks (Servant 2, Myrmidon), Ryan Madden (Thersites), Jonathan Milner (Troilus), and Scott Bean (Ulysses).
The show runs Friday-Sunday, 7:30 p.m. through Aug. 22, at the Hazel Robinson Amphitheatre. Free; donations accepted.