Whatever the faults of “Age of Iron,” lack of ambition is not among them. Helmer/adapter Brian Kulick has aspired not merely to patch the holes in Shakespeare’s notoriously difficult “Troilus and Cressida” but to restage the entire Trojan war in less than three hours. He succeeds more at the first enterprise than the second — using the parts of Paris and Helen from Thomas Heywood’s “Iron Age,” Kulick beefs up the couple’s role in “Troilus” and cuts out Shakespeare’s subversion, pointing up the swashbuckling and tamping down the irony.
The play opens with the abduction of Helen (Tina Benko) and the first permutation of Mark Wendland’s half-wonderful set, composed largely of huge nylon sheets that vanish into the flies when one cataclysm or another takes places. The other part of the set is a little more problematic: the entire floor is an inches-deep plane of sand.
This probably sounded like a great idea when whoever first dreamed it up proposed turning the stage into a literal sandbox. In practice, though, the chief result is to make it difficult to walk straight for people trying very hard to be taken seriously.
As a consequence, there’s significantly less gravitas during the stylized fight sequences than one might hope for. Actors making long crosses lope awkwardly; when soldiers engage in dance-fighting, they seem vulnerable and unsure unless they’re full-on charging at one another.
Admittedly, this is something you get used to over the course of the play, and there are moments (especially those that are less about dance and more about hitting) that look exactly like what one imagines a bunch of soldiers on a beach would actually look like in combat.
There’s also some stylization that works well. When, for example, one soldier’s exploits are narrated in front of a tableau of stabbed and stabbing soldiers, each kill mentioned unfreezes one more soldier as he removes his spear from his victim. It’s chilling.
One of the great things about seeing Shakespeare staged is that unless you’ve got the whole canon memorized there will always be some incredible phrase or argument that leaps off the stage at you. Kulick seems to have cast his actors based solely on whether or not they’re equal to delivering the bon mots that come their way, and he’s found a couple of terrific interpreters in Steven Skybell (Ulysses) and Steven Rattazzi (Thersites, who picks up some of the excised Pandarus’ lines).
Skybell gets the best monologue in “Troilus” and applies it to the lazy Achilles (Dion Mucciacito) with such force that he makes that scene alone worth the price of admission. Rattazzi also helps perk up some of Heywood’s work, which frequently feels a little clunky next to the Bard.
One wishes the show’s inventiveness outweighed its mistakes, but there are quite a few of the latter. For one thing, Kulick has cast actress Xanthe Elbrick as Patroclus, Achilles’ young (male) lover, which undermines “Troilus” being a play about love in all its forms. His removal of Pandarus from the central relationship doesn’t really work, either — it erases the inspiration for some of the most important decisions made by Cressida (a very good Dylan Moore), turning her and Troilus (Finn Wittrock) into a less charismatic Romeo and Juliet.
And “Age of Iron” has more endings than “The Lord of the Rings,” which slows down its final 30 minutes considerably as Kulick tries to cram in everything from the Trojan Horse to the battle for Achilles’ armor. It’s more intellectually impressive than it is fun to watch; by the end of the play we’re as glad as any soldier that the war is finally over.