For this year’s foray into “Extreme Shakespeare” – a production based on Elizabethan stage practices, where actors arrive, lines learned, and work out costumes and staging themselves mere days before opening – the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival presents Troilus and Cressida, a witty and spirited attempt at “the most vexing and ambiguous of Shakespeare’s plays”.
The set has been commandeered from scenic designer Steve TenEyck’s work for the PSF’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, though it also fits in well with this production. At the rear of the Elizabethan-style thrust stage, a traditional proscenium arch with luxurious red velvet curtains pulls back to reveal a stylized bleak and rocky landscape in front of a barren blue-grey horizon. The costumes in turn echo this veneer of civilized pretense over a grim reality. For all that the Trojans patriotically color-coordinate their outfits (shades of red as sumptuous as the curtains) while the Greeks opt for intimidating black leather, the majority of the characters look barely prepared for a war. Troilus wears a pink flowing poet shirt and red jeans with his army beret and sabre; Deiphobus wields her crossbow while matching a scarlet waistcoat to the floppy bow in her perfectly-styled hair; Paris simply wears a snappy grey suit with a red satin pocket square to complement his golden laurel wreath. On the Greek side, Agamemnon sports a peaked hat with a leather overcoat as well as a dramatic black and purple velvet side-cape, which recalls the look of a military general/dictator – or rather, several of them all at once – while still being distinctly impractical for military maneuvers. Meanwhile, Achilles and Patroclus appear to have eschewed the fighting for clubbing, the former in a grey mesh shirt and leather vest, the latter in an inadequately-buttoned blue button-down and the world’s tightest cargo pants. The only two characters who look remotely ready for combat are Hector and Ulysses. Both initially appear in similar undershirts (red for Hector, grey for Ulysses) and combat boots, Hector’s face marked with old wounds and Ulysses’ uniform smudged with sweat and dirt; unsurprisingly, it is these two characters who in this production are focused most on the actual business of war itself.
The actors do an excellent job following the dramatic tonal shifts of the play, perfectly balancing the comedic dysfunction of the large cast of characters with the darker currents underlying the action. Brandon J. Pierce’s charmingly earnest Troilus is willing to champion the cause of love no matter the cost – though Pierce makes it clear that this attitude stems from Troilus never truly considering what that cost might be. As Cressida, Mairin Lee seems more comfortable with Cressida’s flustered interactions with Troilus or her saucy banter with Pandarus (Carl N. Wallnau in full, and effective, Foghorn Leghorn mode) than her grief at being given as a hostage to the Greeks. However, Lee gives Cressida a desperate defiance at the Greek leaders’ sexual harassment and a tortured resignation to Diomedes’ “affections” that demonstrate the tragic gulf between her former happiness and the choices she must now make to survive.
Andrew Goebel serve an admirable turn as the eternal butt of the joke, Ajax, applying his excellent comedic timing to both the script and subtle background gags (in one memorable instance using his mace as a backscratcher). Thersites meanwhile may play the role of a fool, but Susan Riley Stevens finely whets her sarcasm into a beautifully nasty edge. Patroclus likewise provides some of the comic relief, but Peter Danelski gives him a nicely subtle yearning for the sort of honorable conflict that is definitely lacking, as well as a genuine devotion to his lover Achilles. Luigi Sottile underscores Hector’s nobility with a distinct current of bitterness, while Greg Wood’s wily Ulysses possesses a terrifying casual ruthlessness. Though she appears in only one scene, Ally Borgstrom as Helen makes nearly as dramatic an impression as Helen made on the mythological world: a perfectly balanced mix of sensual power in a precarious position, ambivalent – if not outright loathing – towards Paris despite her acceptance of losing herself in passion rather than despair.
Where the cast shines the brightest, however, is the thought put into wrestling the play into a greater sense of coherency than that provided by the text. The tone of the production focuses on the false sense of security caused by seven years of inconclusive war, and the resulting privileged obliviousness among the Trojans and childish infighting among the Greeks is the perfect setting for the play’s uneasy, even desperate humor; as the conflict escalates, their illusions are crushed, until they are only left with the bloody reality of active war. Meanwhile, Ulysses’ mythical cleverness is combined with his stated desire to manipulate those who will not take the war seriously to orchestrate near-Iago-like levels of conspiracy. Thersites now seems to be working for him, goading first Ajax and then Achilles towards battle, and though it is shocking it is not ultimately surprising when Ulysses himself murders Patroclus to spark Achilles’ roaring rampage of revenge. That Wood portrays Ulysses’ actions as without malice or glee, simply a determined pragmatism, makes it even more chilling.
Finally, though the dramatic arc of Troilus and Cressida’s relationship still ends as abruptly and unsatisfyingly as the relationship itself, the production offers hints as to why. Cressida’s black evening gown in her final scene (the color of timeless elegance and mourning both, and a definite change from her previously brightly-colored outfits) bears a marked resemblance to Helen’s, a parallel further strengthened by their similar reactions to their lovers. Both women, trapped by the circumstances of war and the maneuverings of the men in their lives, use their passion to maintain what position they have and make the best of their situation.
The one downside to such an excellent production is that it highlights how baffling the source text truly is, frustrating the audience anew that all the deft performances and cleverly enhanced storylines still come to their natural conclusions somewhere offstage after the curtain drops. Despite this, the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival’s extreme Troilus and Cressida shows that where passion and hard work are combined, even Shakespeare’s lesser works can gain some measure of mythological glory.