Clearly, Peter Hall just can’t get enough of the Trojan War. Six months after his 10-hour production of “Tantalus” opened in Denver, Hall is playing in the sand once again, for another three-and-a-half hours, as the director of Shakespeare’s “Troilus and Cressida” at Theater for a New Audience.
“T&C” isn’t the Bard for beginners; not entirely a comedy, not really a history and scarcely a tragedy, the play is more intellectually intriguing than dramatically engaging. Shakespeare takes a dim view of war and warriors, and love and lovers, in “Troilus and Cressida,” and its seething cynicism has resonated strongly in the 20th century.
Accordingly, Hall opens and closes his strongly cast and cleanly staged production with Thersites (Andrew Weems), the character whose view of humanity is dimmest of all. This scabrous, bile-spewing bastard (his own description, thank you, and one of the most generous he has for anyone in the play) delivers the prologue, and brings down the lights three-and-a-half hours later in a clever bit of staging; the suggestion is that the worst of humanity, like cockroaches, will be here long after the best has been defeated.
Weems’ performance is lavishly repellent, and one of the highlights of the evening. Thersites’ strings of curses on all who come across his path are delivered with a biting relish that makes us laugh even when the terms of opprobrium are obscure.
Thersites is the scourge of the Greek camps, where anomie, pontification and preening are the order of the day. We are seven years into the Trojan War, and both sides seem both indifferent to the cause and incapable of deserting hidebound notions of honor to end it.
The Greek leaders Agamemnon (Terence Rigby), Ulysses (Philip Goodwin) and Nestor (Nicholas Kepros) grind out long speeches and yet are incapable of keeping their best warrior, Achilles (Idris Elba), in the field. Heroism is notably absent from this warrior’s armor; he’s happier lounging in his tent with his lover Patroclus, making mock of the generals. Only by pitting the reputation of the dim-witted Ajax (the aptly loutish Earl Hindman) against Achilles’ pride can either be got to perform.
Hall’s grasp of the comic niceties in the play is assured, and his actors bring out all the windy buffoonery and egotism of the Greek warriors. Rigby and Kepros deserve special kudos, Goodwin is also fine, but allows his Ulysses to become too earnest in his exhortations; we lose sight of the manipulator. Elba’s drunken Achilles’ mixes charisma and a sort of louche laziness in interesting measures.
Meanwhile, over at the Trojan camp, spirits are not particularly high either. Here, too, debate rages as to whether the cost of the war is worth the dubious prize, the famous Helen, who is only briefly seen in the play, acting tarty. In a key scene the Trojan King Priam (a fine, wry Frank Raiter) and his warrior sons debate whether to give the woman up and end the war. Hector (David Conrad), the closest the play comes to having a hero, urges that the prize be forfeit, but he’s rather easily — and oddly — persuaded by the hotheaded young Troilus (Joey Kern) and Paris (Lorenzo Pisoni) that duty and honor demand that Helen be kept, no matter the cost.
Priam’s dry retort to Helen’s possessor Paris, “You have the honey still, but these the gall,” is telling. Here as among the Greeks, ideas of heroism are merely constructs used to pursue selfish ends.
Hall has gathered a handsome assembly of young actors to play the Trojans. They look exotically sexy in Martin Pakledinaz’s Middle Eastern-styled costumes, and the better news is that most are capable actors, too, with Conrad’s Hector particularly impressive.
The notable exceptions to the generally excellent performances come, strangely, in the title roles. Kern and Tricia Paoluccio would make a nice couple on a WB network drama or a teen film comedy, but they’re a bit out of their depth here. The casting may be a sly attempt on Hall’s part to point up the callowness of their romance, which is conducted in brief bursts of high-flying rhetoric. But it’s a self-defeating strategy. When these two are swapping verse, you may find yourself taking an inordinate interest in the sand beneath their feet, the key element of Douglas Stein’s stark set design.
The damage is not, in the end, critical to the overall effectiveness of the production. One of Thersites’ more pithy observations runs “Lechery, lechery, still wars and lechery; nothing else holds fashion.” While this strange and diffuse play may not work as a cohesive drama, it forcefully dissects the hollow ideas of heroism and love that are more romantically depicted elsewhere in the Shakespeare canon.
Hall’s production — overall one of the better Bard productions to be seen in New York in several seasons — does considerable justice to its multifaceted nature, in particular allowing the play’s stinging wit full rein.