Troilus and Cressida at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, Mary Rippon Outdoor Theatre, Boulder CO., August 4 2016
Reviewed by Harriet Archer
Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida is a difficult work, sulky and intractable like so many of its characters. It is not a tragedy, or a comedy, or a history, or a romance. It is not really about its eponymous lovers, who do not meet, marry, or die during the course of the action, and appear only intermittently. It begins and ends, unapologetically, in medias res, a desultory prologue setting up the originary epic with a throwaway summary of Helen of Troy’s abduction by Paris: ‘that’s the quarrel’. How to introduce or conclude a story which needs no introduction and has no conclusion? It reworks the familiar narrative baldly, with neither deference nor challenge to its distinguished antecedents, Chaucer, Virgil and Homer. An echo of Marlowe’s Helen’s redemptive beauty is debased: ‘she is a pearl,| Whose price hath launch’d above a thousand ships,| And turn’d crown’d kings to merchants’. Amongst its huge ensemble cast there are no heroes, and no villains; its unappealing dramatis personae tease, needle and ignore each other. What is the point of Troilus and Cressida? The play shrugs – ‘like or find fault…as your pleasures are’ – and kicks at the sand with its sandaled toes.
The 2016 Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s hilarious and haunting Troilus and Cressida (June 24-August 6), directed by Carolyn Howarth, revels in the text’s mix of languid apathy and frenetic pointlessness. Opening with a show of purposeful shield-clashing and spear-thumping, its warriors quickly disperse to lounge in hammocks and on the ground, fiddling in the wings. Zach Stolz’s Menelaus tosses a ball impotently. Austin Terrell as Ajax roars and blusters at no one. The production’s costumes run the gamut of frat-house TV, phasing in and out of Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy, cut with The Big Lebowski. A female Agamemnon (Kelsey Didion) is all Xena-style cropped leather; Helen, played by Lindsey Kyler, is a classical bimbo in Disney hair and embellished chiffon; Achilles (Geoffrey Kent) skulks on the sidelines in his underpants, a skimpy yin-yang robe and pretty boy Patroclus (Spencer Althoff) hanging off his shoulders, bringing the house down with a drawled ‘what’s the matter, man?’ Howard Swain as Pandarus is a washed up rockstar, with dark glasses, Ozzy Osbourne stagger and an electric guitar. The stasis and voyeurism of the reality show hangs over both Greek and Trojan settings. Here is Helen gossiping in the bath, Troilus and Cressida lolling in bed, and Cassandra (Emilie O’Hara), the younger sibling unwilling to participate, railing against a format her co-stars refuse to see beyond.
Moments of love and loyalty are tucked away in the corners of this production: Cassandra’s blood-curdling grief, a pregnant, armoured Andromache’s fear (ignored by Hector), Patroclus’s obvious, wordless hurt and Achilles’s eleventh-hour anger against the ‘boy-queller’ Hector at the heart of the drama’s real romance. Sordid sexiness dominates Troilus and Cressida’s doomed relationship, mirrored by Helen’s infidelity and the blinkered constancy of the buffoonish Paris, and set against the paltry bickering of the Greeks. Although briefly and winningly flustered by the clash of emotion and artifice in her pursuit of Troilus, Carolyn Holding’s Cressida is controlled and calculating, even in her perfectly paced seduction by Benaiah Anderson’s chilling Diomedes. Christopher Joel Onken’s Troilus by contrast is puppyish, arrogant and immature. Casting women as Agamemnon, Aeneas and Ulysses (Didion, Lilli Hokama, and Mare Trevathan) further propels the performance’s aesthetic into futuristic dystopia, and works seamlessly, heightening the arbitrariness of the text’s gendered codes and prejudices, and the savagery of Cressida’s treatment in the Greek camp.
The open-air Mary Rippon Theatre obviously offers an ideal classical backdrop, while its campus setting resonates distantly with the tensions on display. Its vast, open stage and shallow rake add to the sense of desolate space between characters. The set, designed by Caitlin Ayer, features a monumental revolving door which swings open and shut to both comic and tragic effect, and imperfectly divides the questionably opposed groups; massive, jagged pillar-fragments hanging from the lighting rig anticipate with Cassandra the annihilation of Troy, but also suggest that Shakespeare’s plot is unfolding from the outset among the ruins of the classical legend, its Ozymandian heroics reduced to pettiness. For all this bleakness and futility, though, Howarth’s production is engaging, warm and funny, a testament to her insightful interpretation of this underperformed play.