I guarantee that Shakespeare never imagined a performance like this. With a haunting, tragic melody tinkling over the theater's speaker system, the pale, helmeted spirits of Greece and Troy's fallen sons slowly make their way downstage under billowing, transparent chiffon. Troilus and Cressida ends the same way, with fallen heroes reminding us of the consequences of the actions, and of our inevitable mortality. It is powerful; it put the play in perspective. However clever Pandarus (Stephen Ouimette) or hilarious Thersites (Ross Lehman) might be, the play is set during year eight of the Trojan war. Jokes and love can only last so long in such times.
Troilus and Cressida, which opened on Shakespeare's 443rd birthday and runs through June 24, 2007 at Chicago's Shakespeare Theater, is the Bard's take on Homer's Iliad, as told from the perspective of two young and, yes, star-crossed, lovers in Troy. It’s obvious Artistic Director and theater founder Barbara Gaines is inspired in her portrayal of the characters by Alessandro Baricco's An Iliad, published in 2006 by Knopf. Like Shakespeare, Baricco humanizes the epic battle through intense character focus. Baricco's novel gives a first-person account from every major player in the Trojan War. Having the read the book myself, I'm thrilled Gaines used Baricco's perspective in helping shape and define her own.
The most brilliant parts of the play come by means of Troilus (Kevin O'Donnell), Pandarus, and Thersites. O'Donnel lights up the stage whenever he was on it, and moved seamlessly from lovesick boy to grief-stricken lover to violent warrior to somber hero. Thersites, like most of Shakespeare's comic foils, steals the show, but I never once thought I was watching actor Ross Lehman, only the character himself.
I had a hard time reconciling the Cressida of Act 1 with the Cressida of Act 2. For the first half of the play, the actress didn’t thrill me. She seems a little over the top, almost overselling the role. So imagine my surprise when intermission ends and the second act opens to a whole new Cressida. Chaon Cross can sell grief. She completely embraces her character, reaching levels of deep, raw emotion that I've rarely seen onstage.
Achilles, played by Bruce A. Young, is also an ineffective character, though for different reasons and without a second act reprieve. I've studied the Trojan War extensively, and I've read a number of takes on Homer's epic. I've formed opinions about his characters, who they are, and what they would do. Achilles is epic, larger-than-life, and Young's portrayal is almost wussy. Sure, he bellows and swaggers at the appropriate times, but it takes more than the motions to recreate the greatest, most fearsome warrior the world has ever known.
Underused is Lacy Coil, who portrays the unheeded psychic Cassandra. The part is small, and Coil is onstage far too infrequently, but every time she runs shrieking into the spotlight she commands the theater. She is equal parts angry, fearful, insane, and tragic, and she blends these traits perfectly into a performance that is effortless and natural, when it could easily have been over-the-top.
The 32-member cast could easily have been chaos to maneuver, particularly during the play's final scenes of fierce battle. The movement onstage, however, is nothing short of spectacular. Gaines does a marvelous job with coordinating the actors onto and off the stage so that the audience feels the hectic frenzy of battle without getting lost in the action or wondering whom to watch.
The sets are simple, but with such a large cast, more pieces would only clutter the stage they so impressively keep from confusion. The costumes, similarly, do an excellent job of making obvious who is with what army, with Trojans in brighter, more urban garb, and the Greeks in more ragged, earthy colors (they were living in tents on a beach, after all). Even if you can’t keep track of which minor character is which, at least you can tell which side they are on. This is really is helpful during the battle scenes when characters move on and off stage in a hurry.
Final verdict: The play is good but not great; I had delicious meal, but I wasn't left feeling full.