“Troilus and Cressida” is a total downer, a sweet romance gone sour after a single night of ecstasy paired uncomfortably with a sprawling war story lacking not only heroes but a mission that would make the suffering of seven years’ duration seem worthwhile. So who better to tackle one of Shakespeare’s more problematic problem plays than Mark Wing-Davey, the director who, three years ago and on a budget of about $ 150, turned “Mad Forest” — Caryl Churchill’s kaleidoscopic accountof the last days of the Ceausescu nightmare in Romania — into one of the most haunting large-scale stage works in recent memory?
Well, maybe next time. At 3 1/4 almost wholly unendurable hours, Wing-Davey’s “Troilus and Cresida” is a relentlessly trendy, deliberately effeminate travesty of a play that, with its long-winded monologues and erratic shifts in tone, just may be impossible to produce.
As the audience enters the Delacorte, the stage is dominated by the larger-than-billboard visage of Tamara Tunie’s Helen, the face that launched a thousand ships and brought us to the beginning of the play, set late in the Trojan Wars. The image soon gives way, in Derek McLane’s spectacular stage design, to Priam’s palace, all gridwork and gauze, where the moony Troilus (Neal Huff) reveals his infatuation with Cressida (Elizabeth Marvel) to her preening, pimping uncle, Pandarus (Stephen Spinella).
It’s not long before the honorable Troilus and the somewhat spoiled Cressida spend a night of bliss, only to have Cressida become a pawn in the war, whereupon she — like Helen herself — proves unworthy of the love pledged to her. At least, that’s the standard — read male — version, reinforced here. But having just been willingly traded away by her lover, Cressida’s putative crime may simply be that she chooses to survive in hostile territory.
Meanwhile, morale in the Greek and Trojan camps disintegrates as a war everyone knows is not worth fighting drags on.
Wing-Davey has taken a free hand with Shakespeare — and why not? — especially in the central character of Thersites (a feral, ravaged Tim Blake Nelson), the foul-mouthed provocateur who serves as a kind of tour guide through this hellish intersection of anarchy and ennui.
Thus we have Paul Calderon as a coke-snorting, hard-drinking, boy-friend-kissing Achilles, whose every entrance is heralded by the Doors. We meet Helen being penetrated from behind by Paris (the aptly named Bill Camp, looking like a Warhol boy toy) while another couple go at it underneath them; we hear Tom Brokaw reporting on Bosnia, and the specter of AIDS permeates this squash court of social diseases and malaise.
There’s a gold Jeep and free jazz, Ulysses (Steven Skybell) reading L. Ron Hubbard as he talks about how man “cannot make boast to have that which he hath, nor feels not what he owes, but by reflection.” And we have such free translations as “thou tassel of a prodigal’s purse” recast as “thou tassel on lawyer’s loafer” and “Westchester” for “Windchester” — talk about pandering!
Admittedly, Wing-Davey takes most of his cues from the text, which is a real slog. War is pointless, love is a carnal transaction, and both pose serious health risks. But what Shakespeare drafted as satire is here relentlessly reduced to a much lower form of comedy.
The finale, which recalls the end of “Mad Forest,” intercuts Hector’s carcass being dragged through the streets of Troy with the body of Pandarus, withered and whitened to a ghostly pallor by the venereal diseases he has just wished upon the audience, flung on a rope from a rafter. It’s a shocking image in a production whose currency is shocking images, all of which are, like that portrait of Helen, devalued through inflation.