By Stanford Friedman
There’s a covert operation underway in Central Park where, under the fog machines of war, Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, digs deep into the male psyche to explore the dilemma of being in love while being in battle. In counterpoint to the all-female The Taming of the Shrew which opened this year’s festivities at the Delacorte, this overwhelmingly male cast unpacks its Trojan War stress disorder in encounters ranging from extreme machismo to bisexual frustration to downright giddiness. Despite a few long-winded monologues from the bard, and female roles that are far from satisfying, this powerful staging, with a veteran company that’s not fooling around, is Shakespeare in the Park at its best. T&C is rarely produced to begin with; a production this solid should not be missed.
Director Daniel Sullivan is at the top of his game in creating a cohesive and entertaining night out of what is often referred to as one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays.” Not really a traditional tragedy nor fully a history, the title characters do not meet a deadly fate, and battles end inconclusively. Plus, it’s a tale pulled from Greek mythology which was not so much in William’s wheelhouse. Sullivan brings immediacy to the work by staging it with modern dress, modern weaponry, and modern electronics. The Greek army smacks of the U.S. military machine with its cluster of aging leaders, namely Agamemnon, (John Douglas Thompson), Nestor (Edward James Hyland) and Menelaus (Forrest Malloy), and its ruffian young bucks, Ajax (Alex Breaux) and Achilles (Louis Cancelmi). There’s even a CIA-like advisor, Ulysses (Corey Stoll) who proves to be as violently manipulative as any covert spy from The Americans.
Stoll brings his patented icy gloss to Ulysses and Breaux’s Ajax is an ominous dumb brute. They share an absurd moment together, taking a selfie before getting down to the violence at hand. David Harbour was originally cast to play Achilles, but in a Shakespearean twist of cruel fate, injured his Achilles tendon. Not to worry, Cancelmi is great in the role. Somewhere in the spectrum between Christopher Walken and a young Al Pacino, he is captivating as a man divided by his passions and handy with a knife.
The Trojan army, if not quite a rebel brigade, are dressed in stealth black clothing and track the war’s progress from their laptops. The mighty Paris (Maurice Jones) and the brothers Hector (Bill Heck) and Troilus (Andrew Burnap), fight the good fight. Troilus has some matters of the heart to deal with as well and they reach a climax, if you will, when Pandarus (John Glover) provides to him his niece, Cressida (Ismenia Mendes), giving them a night of romance and giving us the verb meaning to gratify someone’s immoral desire. Glover is excellent, as usual, with his character also serving as a comic narrator, growing ever more feeble throughout the night. Thersites (Max Casella) fulfills a similar narrative duty on the Greek side. Casella finds just the right blend of Shakespearean fool and Jack Nicholson sailor. Burnap and Mendes both do solid, if lackluster, work in tricky roles, with their love story taking a turn too late in the play and then dissipating. If only that playwright knew something about plot structure!
Helen (Tala Ashe), she who launched a thousand ships, gets short shrift from Shakespeare, which actually proves to be an effective reminder of war’s tendency to linger on beyond reason. Cassandra (Nneka Okafor) was always my favorite Greek character (like a theater critic, destined to foretell the truth yet never to be believed), but here Okafor has little to do but scream crazily in a couple scenes to let us know that it’s a bad night to be a Trojan.
The battle scenes, be it fist fights or wild bursts of automatic gun fire, are unabashedly cinematic and exciting. David Zinn’s set is dynamic and utilitarian, employing a variation of classic Greek periaktoi. And the stars give way when lighting designer Robert Wierzel turns the trees of Central Park into a glorious morning backdrop for the young lovers.
Troilus and Cressida – By William Shakespeare; Directed by Daniel Sullivan.
WITH: Zach Appelman (Diomedes); Tala Ashe (Helen, Andromache); Connor Bond (Ensemble); Alex Breaux (Ajax); Andrew Burnap (Troilus); Max Casella (Thersites); Andrew Chaffee (Ensemble); Michael Bradley Cohen (Ensemble); Paul Deo Jr. (Ensemble); Sanjit De Silva (Aeneas); John Glover (Pandarus); Jin Ha (Ensemble); Louis Cancelmi (Achilles); Bill Heck (Hector); Hunter Hoffman (Ensemble); Nicholas Hoge (Ensemble); Edward James Hyland (Nestor); KeiLyn Durrel Jones (Ensemble); Maurice Jones (Paris); Forrest Malloy (Menelaus); Ismenia Mendes (Cressida); Nneka Okafor (Cassandra); Tom Pecinka (Patroclus); Kario Pereira-Bailey (Ensemble); Miguel Perez (Priam, Calchas); Grace Rao (Ensemble); Corey Stoll (Ulysses); John Douglas Thompson (Agamemnon)
Set and costume design by David Zinn, lighting design by Robert Wierzel, sound design by Mark Menard, and music composition by Dan Moses Schreier. Michale Rossmy and Rick Sordelet, co-fight directors; James Latus, production stage manager. A Shakespeare in the Park production, presented by the Public Theater, Oskar Eustis, artistic director; Patrick Willingham, executive director. Through August 14 at the Delacorte Theater, Central Park at 81st Street, Manhattan; 212-539-8500, publictheater.org. Running time: 3 hours.