Shakespeare’s tragedy Troilus and Cressida was neglected for centuries, but its popularity picked up following World War II. The play calls into question the glory of war-making and the constancy of love with bitter irony, both attitudes that would have been out of fashion before World War I but slowly gained ground after the massive conflicts in the first half of the 20th century. The play affords a host of outstanding male roles, particularly those of Ulysses and Pandarus, as well as debates on the nature of time and honor. Still, Classic Stage Company’s artistic director Brian Kulick has opted not to stage Shakespeare’s play intact. Rather, he has blended it with The Iron Age, a forgotten play by Thomas Heywood, author of A Woman Killed with Kindness, as well as plays on the ages of gold, silver, and brass. It proves, on the whole, a canny experiment. One is reminded that Shakespeare’s contemporaries had some impressive writing chops, and the opening scene in which Craig Baldwin’s silver-tongued, passionate Paris seduces Tina Benko’s Helen in the tent of Menelaus (Luis Moreno) in Sparta is a compelling example of Heywood’s skill: “I want your lips to help me make a kiss,” he tells her.
Swiftly, though, Kulick’s adaptation joins “the princes orgulous, their high blood chaf’d” on the Scamander Plain outside Troy, and Shakespeare takes over. In Troilus and Cressida the lines are delivered by a Prologue, but Kulick gives them to Thersites, the scabrous hanger-on whose mantra is “War and lechery, war and lechery!” Fans of the Bard may lament the loss of key elements of his play —gone missing are Cassandra and Nestor, for instance, as well as the wily Pandarus and the marvelous scene in which Helen and Paris toy with him, demanding he sing for her — yet the result of the twinned works is a successful overview of the whole Trojan War, from Helen’s abduction to the famous gift horse.
The look is spare and modern. Oana Botez-Ban has dressed the male actors in kneeboots, sleeveless T's and Mao jackets, and slacks with suspenders, all black. The Greeks are bearded, the Trojans clean-shaven. The effect is timelessness, though one wishes Botez-Ban had expanded Helen’s wardrobe. Is it likely that the siren who launched the war and for whom so much had been sacrificed would still be wearing the same frock seven years after her abduction?
Simplicity extends to the playing area, a large sand pit over-canopied initially with red, and then with white. It works well as a battlefield where the forces clash, sometimes with staffs, sometimes with shields. Shakespeare ends with the death of Hector and Troilus cursing Pandarus, who foresees his coming painful death. Heywood takes the story beyond, showing the killing of Troilus and the competition for Hector’s armor. The latter gives Bill Christ’s hulking but childlike Ajax some good speeches, including a lament after losing to the crafty, hair-splitting Ulysses. For his part, Steven Skybell as the mercenary Ithacan delivers his own character's famous speeches on degree and time with a riveting aplomb.
Satisfying though the adaptation is, it’s marred by some awkward directorial decisions. Primary among them is that Patroclus, Achilles’ lover — “his masculine whore,” as Thersites bluntly puts it — is played by the lithe, slender and definitely female Xanthe Elbrick, who, even with a tattoo and a dose of swagger, is unconvincing as a man whose occupation is war (though she is splendid as Andromache later on). The gender-bending makes nonsense of the hint of camp that Dion Mucciacito suggests in his slightly fey Achilles, and it muddles the whole issue of sexual preference that is clearly part of Shakespeare's and Homer's stories.
As for Thersites, self-described as a wrinkled, diseased hunchback, he’s no such thing; the vigorous Steven Rattazzi plays him in the pink, with a lot of growling insults, and not a hint that his spite may be due to being abused for his infirmities.
The production also lessens the importance of Troilus and Cressida, and given the actors involved, that’s not a bad thing. Neither Finn Wittrock’s Troilus nor Dylan Moore’s Cressida — a character not in The Iliad at all, but rather one created by Chaucer — seem rooted in anything but the 21st century. Their inflections and body movements are so modern as to be jarring, and their passion becomes a distraction from the main event, Ulysses’ attempt to get Achilles out of his tent and Patroclus’s arms and into battle against Hector. Nonetheless, one feels inclined to applaud Kulick’s conception of the story. It’s a fascinating, resonant examination of the high cost of war and the flawed humans that conduct it.