“Troilus and Cressida,” the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s latest offering in the New Theatre, gives us Shakespeare in a dark and reflexive mode. In this fascinating play about love and war, the characters are ambiguous, the situations complex, the humor dark. There are no easy answers, no tidy resolutions. There are no straightforward heroes here. Nor are there clear-cut villains. But the action will keep you at the edge of your seat.
Set during the Trojan War, “Troilus and Cressida” is also a play that uncomfortably reflects our own geopolitical reality. This production emphasizes that fact by placing the action during the Iraq War, with the Greeks as the Americans and the Trojans as the Iraqis.
As “Troilus and Cressida” begins, it is year seven of the Trojan War and the fighting is at a stalemate. Both sides would welcome an excuse to end the conflict and rifts have developed among the leadership of both camps. The war that started as revenge, when Helen betrayed her Greek husband and ran off with the Trojan king’s son Paris, no longer seems worth its cost in blood and treasure. Even as the Trojans debate whether they should just give Helen back, the Greeks discuss whether they should, as was said about the Vietnam War, “just declare victory and leave.”
To force some sort of decisive action, the Trojan hero Hector challenges the Greeks to send a fighter for single combat. It is a direct challenge to the great Greek hero Achilles. But Achilles has decided to sit this one out. He has had enough of fighting and now spends his time lolling about in his tent with his young lover Patroclus.
The Greek generals, however, see Hector’s challenge as a goad to Achilles as well as a way of rousing their own troops’ sagging morale.
Meanwhile, Troilus, another of King Priam’s sons, avoids going to battle because he is pining for the love of Cressida. She is rather unsuitable as a bride since her father, Calchas, defected to the Greeks. However, her slimy uncle, Pandarus, is working diligently as a — well, panderer is the term.
Unlike Shakespeare’s usual lovers, Troilus may be naively lovesick but Cressida is a clear-headed realist. She plays hard-to-get at first because she knows that an easy conquest is quickly discarded. Later, after those vows of undying love, when she is traded to the Greeks at the request of her turncoat father, she surmises that Troilus is her past and now she better see to her future.
To drive home his point, director Rob Melrose has deftly superimposed U.S. military stereotypes and contemporary Middle Eastern despotism onto Shakespeare’s own take on the “Iliad,” though, frankly, his characters owe as much to Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22” as they do to the “Hurt Locker.”
There are the manipulative generals, Agamemnon (Barret O’Brien), Menelaus (Barzin Akhavan), Ulysses (Mark Murphey) and Nestor (Tony DeBruno), stuck in an endless war with no decisive victory in sight. There are loyal and competent officers like Diomedes (Kevin Kenerly) and the problematic “warriors,” the petulant Achilles (Peter Macon) and the mindless super-jock Ajax (Elijah Alexander). But there are also the jaded, opportunistic enlisted men like the kept man, Patroclus (Ramiz Monsef) and the druggie wheeler-dealer Thersites (Michael Elich).
Alexander is particularly delicious in his portrayal of the brutish, unthinking Ajax, posturing and bellowing in some super-military parody, while Elich brings a bitter humor to Thersites, whose disdainful commentary acts as a chorus to the action
Similarly, Melrose portrays Priam’s court as a declining power center, sort of like the court of Saddam Hussein just before the American invasion.
Priam (Tony DeBruno) is old and ineffectual. His eldest son Hector (Bernard White) is disillusioned with the war but bound by his honor to continue fighting. The younger sons, Paris (Ramiz Monsef) and Troilus (Raffi Barsoumian) are both so besotted with Helen (Brooke Parks) and Cressida (Tala Ashe) that they are worthless as warriors. His other three sons, Aeneas, Helenus and Margareton (all played by Fajer Al-Kaisi) appear and disappear almost as afterthoughts. And, of course, there is their sister, the mad, prophetic Cassandra (Tala Ashe). The infamously beautiful Helen here appears in a gold lamé bikini, with big hair, a perpetual drink in her hand and a raging libido.
Melrose is the founder and artistic director of San Francisco’s Cutting Ball Theater. Founded in 1999 by Melrose and his partner Paige Rogers, the Cutting Ball’s mission is presenting experimental new plays and re-visioned classics with “an emphasis on language and images.” In “Troilus and Cressida,” he has Shakespeare’s language and images right out of cable news.
Michael Locher’s minimalist set effectively conveys the endless desert, with a giant Erector Set bridge as fortifications, broken monuments scattered about and a descending panel that creates a decadent Babylonian drawing room with oversized chandeliers and overstuffed furniture and — naturally — a backgammon table.
All in all, OSF and Melrose have taken this seldom-produced play and made it immensely enjoyable and incredibly relevant. You’ll be thinking about “Troilus and Cressida” for hours after you exit the theater.
Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland.