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Cry, Trojans!: Theater review by Helen Shaw
Sing, O Muse, the many battles of Cry, Trojans! Enumerate, O slightly saddened critic, its many weary travails! For indeed, every moment of the Wooster Group's Troilus and Cressida adaptation tastes of struggle, and while some of this constant roiling warfare is intentional, even profitable, eventually the violence numbs us. It feels too much like a production at war with itself.
The project was originally devised as an Anglo-American clash-of-styles experiment in which the play was split along Greek/Trojan lines between two troupes. The present all-Wooster version begins with Ari Fliakos, in full fireside troubadour mode, telling us that this is “the story of our encounter with the Royal Shakespeare Company.” That ensemble, you will notice, has retired from the field. (We do occasionally hear the RSC's recorded performances in Bruce Odland's buzzing thundercloud sound design. They sound great, and I miss them without ever having seen them.) This leaves us to focus on the Trojan side of things, fully ensconced in the customary Wooster video-saturated environment. As has been the case for many a Wooster show, various unnamed films play silently on monitors, which sometimes dictate the troupe's physical movements.
Though huge quantities of the Greek side of the plot has been excised, there's still plenty of story to go around. While Hector (Fliakos) charges nobly around the city walls, lovers Troilus (Scott Shepherd) and Cressida (Kate Valk) discover that plighted troth means very little in wartime. Her naughty uncle Pandarus (Greg Mehrten) makes jokes about her virtue; later, Ulysses (Andrew Schneider) will mock her too. Troilus is actually a wonderfully modern play—it's like Shakespeare's M*A*S*H, with lewd, misogynist nonsense lighting up the muddy trenches, and supposed heroes turning into trash before us.
Elizabeth LeCompte, the delightedly rebarbative mind at the Woosters' center, has clad her avant-garde troupe in faux-Native trappings in order to emphasize the American-versus-British conceit of the original creation. Yet our own stomachs turn as the ensemble does “Indian” dancing or Shepherd grunts like a '50s Hollywood "redskins." Where is the meta-commentary of the blackface the Woosters used in The Emperor Jones, O'Neill's frankly racist (and great) play? Here the edges do not jibe. Agamemnon's boys weren't trying to colonize Troy; they were dying to get home.
And yet! (I am like the Greek camp, divided against myself.) The Woosters work with a very weird set of tools; they have always included disorientation, boredom and offense in their palette. Folkert de Jong's costumes (mock-Sioux pants with rubber casts of Greek statues, worn as jackets) have been painted with great slaps of paint. It's not hard to imagine other colors extending past the visible spectrum—our own prickling discomfort, for instance, splashing across the stage.
Still, intentional or not, the battle being fought here is a losing one. The Woosters tangle with Shakespeare's language, and beating it into insensibility is, shall we say, a Pyrrhic victory. Getting mad at the Wooster Group for obscuring a text may feel like one of those nutty medieval trials—you may as well prosecute sparrows for twittering in church.
But we come to the Wooster Group for the thousand pleasures it dispenses, and Cry! Trojans gives us too few. Suzzy Roche sings eight lines of terrifying, creaking song. Wonderful! Shepherd's eyes slide off his beloved's face, looking for the video monitor behind her. Marvelous! And yet the troupe's past successes may leave you finding this offering perilously thin. Troilus says, “I am giddy; expectation whirls me round.” You may find yourself just like him—running in to the show with your heart high, then leaving with ashes in your mouth.—Helen Shaw
St. Ann's Warehouse (see Off Broadway). Based on Troilus and Cressida by William Shakespeare. Directed by Elizabeth LeCompte. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 15mins. One intermission.