Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Compass’s Troilus and Cressida: Flawed but Worth Seeing


Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Whatever has made Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida one of his most neglected plays — according to the program, the current production (running through October 5 at Compass Theatre, 3704 Sixth Avenue in Hillcrest) is the first in San Diego in 34 years — it certainly isn’t any flaw in the writing. The intense, poetic language of Troilus and Cressida is every bit as good as that in Shakespeare’s well-known plays, and the characterizations are just as rich and multi-dimensional. Ironically, in Troilus and Cressida Shakespeare did to a work by a classic author — Homer’s The Iliad — the same thing Tom Stoppard did to Shakespeare in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead: he re-imagined an acknowledged masterwork of another era by telling its story from the point of view of two of its minor characters.

Troilus and Cressida begins and ends where The Iliad does: it begins with the Greek hero Achilles (Gerard Maxwell) withdrawing from active participation in the Trojan War in a jealous hissy-fit over blows to his imagined “honor” and ends with him returning to the fray and killing the Trojan prince Hector (Scott Amiotte). But the title characters are vastly inflated from their relatively minor roles in the original story. Troilus (Michael Zlotnik) is one of the youngest of Trojan king Priam’s 19 children and, in the 1960’s slogan, would rather make love than war. The person he’d rather make love to than fight is Cressida (Brenna Foley), daughter of a Trojan nobleman, who’s initially resistant to his charms and makes it clear she’d rather have Hector. (Hector’s wife Andromache doesn’t appear in Shakespeare’s script.) Eventually, prodded by her uncle Pandarus (George Weinberg-Harter), the two get together, but even though they’re on the same side in the war the events around them screw up their relationship much the way they did for Shakespeare’s far better-known pair of star-crossed teenage lovers, Romeo and Juliet.

Along with the sheer beauty of the language, Troilus and Cressida bears another of Shakespeare’s hallmarks: his decided skepticism towards “honor” and all the martial virtues. The Greek siege of Troy was supposed to be a quick little war and instead it morphed into a 10-year quagmire (sound familiar?), and Shakespeare seems far more moved by the carnage and waste on both sides than the heroic virtues the Greeks and their cultural descendants, the Romans, found in this story. Troilus and Cressida is a quirky play, utterly fascinating and best enjoyed if you go in knowing the basic outlines of the story but not the specifics of Shakespeare’s “spin” on it.

Compass’s production is directed by Welton Jones, who until his retirement in 2001 was the theatre critic for the San Diego Union-Tribune for 35 years. (He still writes online reviews for Given the old adage that those who can’t do, teach, and those who can’t do or teach become critics, no doubt there’s a certain curiosity factor about how a man who spent most of his adult life telling other San Diego theatre people what they were doing right or wrong with their productions would handle one of his own. The answer: mostly quite well, though with a few failings that make the production less enjoyable than it might have been otherwise.

Aided by a genuinely talented cast, Jones certainly solves the biggest problem any modern company has when doing Shakespeare: getting us to believe that the actors really talk like that all the time. Aided by two of his cast members, Amiotte and Michael Nieto — who are credited with fight choreography — Jones stages effective action sequences and, even in the romantic portions of the story, he keeps the actors moving and doesn’t allow the production to become dull. On the down side is the overacting he lets some of the supporting players get away with; Adam Parker, in the role of the all-purpose Greek sidekick Thersites, cackles all the way through as if he’s auditioning to take over the role of the Joker in the next Batman movie, and Weinberg-Harter — who mostly plays Pandarus as an ancient forerunner of the befuddled Polonius in Hamlet — also starts cackling towards the end.

But the main problem with this production lies in the limited size of the cast available to Compass and the resulting need of every actor in it except Brenna Foley to double. Quite a few of the cast members play both Greeks and Trojans, and one really has to listen carefully to the dialogue to figure out which they’re supposed to be in any given scene. Zlotnik, playing both Troilus and Achilles’ boy-toy Patroclus (and it’s a measure of Shakespeare’s sophistication that he doesn’t beat around the Gay bush; he makes it clear exactly what their relationship is), has it the easiest because as Troilus he wears a tunic and cloak, while as Patroclus he’s naked above the waist. (This is also quite entertaining for the straight women and Gay men in the audience!) The other actors — especially Amiotte, who in terms of star charisma is probably the strongest cast member — sometimes confuse us when they’re obliged to make quick changes in their identity without time to change costumes or otherwise differentiate between the characters they’re playing.

Even when the two parts an actor is playing are the same nationality, conflicts sometime arise. Heavy-set “bear” type Gerard Maxwell plays both Achilles and Ajax, a half-Greek, half-Trojan who signed on with the Greek army as a mercenary. He plays them both in the same dirty grey tunic and the only differentiation is that as Ajax he wears an eye patch and speaks in a slower voice that suggests that Ajax has a lower I.Q. Maxwell is really too old to be playing Achilles — it would probably have been better if he had played Ulysses and younger, hunkier Michael Nieto (who acquits himself well, if somewhat indistinguishably, as Ulysses and Aeneas, the voices of reason on both sides) had been the prima donna hero — and as Ajax he’s better but can’t hold a candle to Lawrence Brown’s force-of-nature reading of the same character in a different play (by Sophocles) at the same theatre, in its former “6th @ Penn” identity, nearly three years ago.

Among the performers, Brenna Foley stands out. She plays Cressida as neither ardent lover nor wanton slut, but a sort of vapid Valley Girl willing to adapt herself to whatever situation she finds herself in while maintaining at least a little independence in an age that treated women as possessions of their men. The only other woman is Laura Kaplan, who plays both the Trojan princess Cassandra and Helen, wife of King Menelaus (Edward Eigner) of Greece, who left him for the Trojan prince Paris (Adam Parker, who’s a good deal more tolerable in this role than he is as Thersites but still seems miscast) and thereby started the war. Though wearing the same dress for each role, she manages to change her posture and voice, doing a far better job at distinguishing between her two characters than most of the men.

Besides being fun to look at (especially as the bare-chested Patroclus), Zlotnik is fine as Troilus, especially strong in the final scene when his character has to undergo a wrenching transformation. Eigner plays both rival kings, Menelaus and Priam, as well as narrating the prologue (one of Shakespeare’s odd little apologias for the play he’s about to present). Weinberg-Harter plays both Pandarus (as whom he’s mostly amusing if a bit too fussbudgety) and Greek commander Agamemnon (an underwritten character who’s vastly more important in most tellings of the story).

The physical production is surprisingly impressive for Compass, with solid and reasonably convincing set designs by Christian Lopez and convincing arms and armor by Mexican artist Armando Muñoz-Garcia. (The swords are made of metal instead of wood, and they clank against each other satisfyingly in the climactic battle scene even though the racket makes it hard to hear the dialogue.) Shelly Williams’ costumes are convincing and Roger Henderson’s lighting design is effective even if it tends a bit too much towards the dark side. Hollace Jones is credited as “musical coordinator,” but the music, such as it is, is just a lot of banging on kettledrums, blowing on a conch shell to simulate a trumpet, and a few shakes of a tambourine when the script mentions one — the sort of scoring for a classical drama hilariously ridiculed in the 1953 film The Band Wagon.

Despite its flaws, the Compass production of Troilus and Cressida is well worth seeing — and not just because you might have to wait 34 more years before any San Diego company does it again. Even on a community-theatre budget with too few actors to fill out the cast, the play is effective and deals with issues all too meaningful today — war, sex, egomaniacal politicians and the problems the military’s so-called “code of honor” causes for the rest of us (especially relevant in a Presidential election year in which one of the major-party nominees is a fourth-generation military man). Overall it’s a well-done staging that lets Shakespeare’s script, convincingly edited by Welton Jones and George Weinberg-Harter, make its points.

TROILUS AND CRESSIDA, by William Shakespeare, Aug. 28-Oct. 5 at Compass Theatre (formerly 6th @ Penn), 3704 Sixth Avenue in Hillcrest. Performances Thurs., Fri. & Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Tickets/info: (619) 688-9210 or