War is hell by the end of Troilus and Cressida, but at the start it’s limbo. The siege of Troy has already dragged on for seven years, and the Greeks camping outside the city’s walls are riven by internal strife. In Daniel Sullivan’s marvelously intelligent and thoughtful modern-dress production of Shakespeare’s darkly comic problem play, everyone’s armor is spattered with ignobility. Ulysses (a chilling Corey Stoll) is an oleaginous politician; Ajax (Alex Breaux) is a lumbering dolt; the strongest among them, Achilles (Louis Cancelmi), is holed up in his tent with his languid lover, Patroclus (Tom Pecinka), mocking the others and refusing to fight. Troilus and Cressida’s closest thing to a hero is the Trojan prince Hector (Bill Heck), an honorable man who fights nonetheless for a cause he knows to be unjust; he is ultimately carved up, unarmed, by a group of Achilles’ thugs.
The side-plot romance that gives the play its title is seen through hardly rosier glasses.The sorcerously charming John Glover plays Pandarus, who sets up a tryst between his niece, Cressida (Ismenia Mendes, winningly tough and torn), and Hector’s callow brother Troilus (an excellent Andrew Burnap). When she is traded to the Greeks in exchange for a prisoner, Troilus ends up feeling betrayed—by her. (The play’s women are condemned as whores by the very men who traffic them.)
Drenched in irony and whipping in tone from bawdy comedy to near-nihilistic tragedy—the play defies attempts at taxonomy—Troilus and Cressida offers little by way of plot or sympathetic characters. Small wonder, perhaps, that it is more popular with scholars than audiences. But its language is richly rewarding, and its understanding of military and sexual politics, elucidated in Sullivan’s staging, feels trenchantly modern. The production concludes with a long combat scene that is thrilling and disgusting at once. It’s an appropriate end for this slippery play, a portrait of war etched in mud.
Delacorte Theater in Central Park (Off Broadway). By William Shakespeare. Directed by Daniel Sullivan. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 55 mins. One intermission. Click here for full ticket and venue information.
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