If politics is the fine art of manipulation — check out the latest from the presidential campaign for substantiation — then William Shakespeare’s scabrous Triolus and Cressida at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park — is as political as they come. This, of course, is true of all of the Bard’s history plays, but particularly of this late-ish (c. 1602) work, which can’t be strictly categorized as tragedy, comedy, history or romance, as it contains a bit of everything.
It is seven inconclusive years into the Greek siege of Troy, after Paris (Maurice Jones) made off with Helen (Tala Ashe), thereby cuckolding Menelaus (Forrest Malloy) and causing Agamemnon (John Douglas Thompson) to lead an avenging assault. The Trojan Horse invasion is still to come. For the time being, the notion is to coax either bisexual Achilles (Louis Cancelmi) — whiling away his time with clinging Patroclus (Tom Pecinka) — or weight-lifting Ajax (Alex Breaux) into engaging Priam’s son, the first-of-equals Greek fighter Hector (Bill Heck), at hand-to-hand combat.
To some extent, that makes master manipulator Ulysses (Corey Stoll) the shrewdest of them all as he oozes between Achilles and Patroclus in suit, tie and glasses. (Yes, this is modern-dress, complete with desert camouflage designed by David Zinn. Yawn. Are the ubiquitous tattoos his designs, too?)
But Ulysses is hardly alone at maneuvering. The action begins with Pandarus (John Glover) cajoling his charge, Cressida (Ismenia Mendes), into falling for Priam’s youngest son, Troilus (Andrew Bernap). This is without realizing that the cunning Cressida is bending her conniving guardian into believing she isn’t already head-over-heels for Troilus. And on it goes: Andromache (Tala Ashe, doing double duty) uses tears, among other tactics, to stop Hector from going into battle. Maybe the only figure plucked by Shakespeare from Greek mythology to be direct in her admonishments is Cassandra (Nneka Okafor), Priam’s daughter, a clairvoyant.
Shakespeare admirers often consider Troilus and Cressida problematic, and rightly so. It’s a dark play that wanders all over the place. Who can say what the author intended to get across as he works his way towards an up-in-the-air ending that leaves his title characters, who are nearly shuttled to a subordinate plot, in the lurch?
Maybe Shakespeare’s idea for them is to make a pithy statement about the transitory nature of even the most ardent lovers. It’s been said before — hasn’t it? — that Troilus and Cressida are like Romeo and Juliet, inside out. Maybe when they’ve parted, they’re luckier than R&J? After all, they’re both among the living at play’s close. Perhaps Shakespeare was having a joke on himself.
Yet, if Troilus and Cressida is watched solely for successive scenes in which one character attempts, cagily, to influence another — like animals circling each other in a cage — then maybe that’s enough reason to value this entry in the Shakespeare canon. Maybe it’s sufficient that the parts don’t add up to more than the whole. That’s if the parts in this not-often-seen play are so involving. Personal politics are an everyday concern, and, bolstered by military politics, they’re depicted with clarity.
But that’s the writing: what of the production? One thing that can be said is that Michael Rossmy and Rick Sordelet stage the many fights thrillingly, incorporating contemporary martial arts techniques. Every punch thrown, every kick landed looks absolutely convincing and completely winch-worthy.
On the other hand, Daniel Sullivan, who almost always directs one of the two annual productions from the Public Theater at the Delacorte, falls surprisingly short in the quality department. Sullivan, from the looks and sound of the proceedings, appears to have decided that Troilus and Cressida is a comedy — certainly as far as the sections involving the Greeks are concerned. From the way he’s approached those sequences, it seems as if he’s guiding a revival of Ira Levin’s No Time for Sergeants. The Greek soldiers look and behave like a bunch of Hell’s Kitchen goons.
When so many performances are, at best, merely competent, only Sullivan can be blamed. Thompson, a first-rate actor, is only so-so. Stoll, playing Ulysses, looks like a wily college lecturer. Max Casella, who never needs encouragement to chew scenery, does just that, showing up in one sequence outfitted like Luther Billis in South Pacific. Ashe gnashes as Andromache and sashays as Helen.
Then there are Burnap and Mendes as the ill-starred title personages. The latter lives up to the praise in the play of her character’s natural beauty; overall, she comes off better than Burnap. A 2016 graduate of the Yale School of Drama, he offers the kind of non-stop, shoot-the-moon emoting that doesn’t do his alma mater proud. His performance is definitely not spoken trippingly on the tongue.
Those not done in here include Heck as tough-minded Hector, Glover as hobbling Pandarus and Zach Appelman as a Diomedes with scruples left unsullied.
Zinn’s set features an upstage wall consisting of many panels painted a dried-blood red. These panels are often angled (with florescent tubes adorning the edges) to specify other locations. At the extreme downstage edges, Zinn also places a rubbish heap. And every once in a while, a chair or some other object used in a just-concluded scene is tossed into one of the unruly piles. Director Sullivan is surely implying how endlessly wasteful war is. Given this misguided enterprise, the mounting heaps become a metaphor for Shakespeare being trashed.
One last word: Since Pandarus put the word “pander” into the English language, and since we have a contemporary figure currently pandering to the American public with such Shakespearean heft, I half-expected Glover’s take to sport orange hair and a phony smile. He doesn’t.
One more last word: this the first Delacorte production with Spanish subtitles. It’s a welcome amenity, especially for patrons for whom Spanish is neither a first nor a second language. Those put off by the production can read the subtitles and enhance their Spanish vocabulary.