War is hell, sure, but sitting through a conceptless, plodding production of Troilus and Cressida is no weekend in Corfu either.
Shakespeare's Trojan War drama is a subtly venomous treatise on naivete and manipulation, and making it relevant for a contemporary audience requires both sophisticated dramaturgy and an expert cast. Unfortunately, the American Theatre of Actors production was sorely lacking in both departments.
Director Jeff Sult seemed to have taken a hands-off approach to the material, which is a huge mistake. As Shakespeare goes, Troilus and Cressida is anything but user-friendly: Between the relatively obscure Greek mythology references and the plot twists that hinge on 400-year-old Elizabethan wordplay, clarity problems abound.
Variations in tone, rhythm, and design can help resolve these dilemmas, but Sult's staging was characterized by a numbing sameness: actors in tunics walked onstage, stood around with their arms folded or with hands on hips, recited poetry to one another, and then left. Set designer Patricio Cahue's (appropriately enough) spartan aesthetic was supposed to help define the setting, but it didn't. Were we on a battlefield? In a bed chamber? What's the difference! If it weren't for the color-coded costumes, it would have been all but impossible to distinguish the Greeks from the Trojans, let alone remember who's trying to deceive whom, and why.
It's hard to imagine what prompted ATA to produce this show in the first place. If the company was trying to make some cutting-edge commentary on the frailty of love or the evils of war, it didn't register. And there was certainly nothing resembling a radical re-interpretation of the play. Instead, this rote staging possessed all of the passion and urgency of a suburban housewife checking off a grocery list: Titus? Got it. Timon? Got it. Troilus? Wait a minute, I think I have a coupon for that....
Granted, shortcomings among the cast contributed mightily to the morass. John Prave's puppy-doggish Troilus hit the necessary marks, but his timid reading didn't drive the action forward. Alexa Polmer's Cressida was more problematic, as she seemed inexplicably nonchalant about everything in her sphere, and her crucial decision to get cozy with Diomedes (Paul James Bowen) was grossly underplayed.
Kelly Ellen Miller's high-energy Thersites was crisp and clean, but had too much caffeine - her frenzied performance seemed out of place in an otherwise languid show. Mark Gordon (Pandarus) and Gilbert Ron (Achilles) handled the verse capably, but everybody else had trouble getting their mouths around the words.
The sole highlight of the production was an Act II battle scene highlighted by rousing drum beats, energized performers, visually arresting stagecraft, and Campbell Bridges's deft fight choreography. The exchange only lasted a minute or two, but it made you wonder why this company didn't exert the same kind of focus and commitment throughout the rest of the show.
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Copyright 1998 John Godfrey