Did Shakespeare really write “Troilus and Cressida”? That’s fair to ask of a play with unlovely lovers, listless poetry, and a fractured plot that staggers from romantic comedy into cynical tragedy. In the new production at the Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare in the Park, director Daniel Sullivan prudently races through the boring stuff to get to the second act, in which he sends two armies of handsome, able-bodied actors into homoerotic battle to fight the suddenly sexy Trojan War.
Andrew Burnap endows the lovesick Prince Troilus with immense charm as he awkwardly courts the shy, virginal Cressida (Ismenia Mendes). The actor also relishes the play’s only decent romantic poetry. (“Her bed is India / And there she lies, a pearl.”) John Glover turns in a funny but mercilessly cruel portrayal of Pandarus, the annoying old uncle who pushes the young lovers into one another’s arms for one night of bliss. But the sooner Cressida betrays her prince with Diomedes, a handsome Greek soldier played by Zach Appelman, the faster we can get to the battlefield.
There’s a bare-bones synopsis in the program, if you really want to understand what’s happening on the Trojan War front. But for our purposes, all you need to know is that both armies are fully armed (with noisy modern weaponry) and trained to fight to the death.
David Zinn has designed the fighters the manliest of costumes. The Greeks are in light desert camouflage and big black boots, and carry automatic rifles. When someone takes off his shirt, as manly men are wont to do, they’re wearing metal dog tags on their sweaty undershirts. The Trojans also wear big boots, but with their chic black uniforms and padded vests, their whole look is darker, scarier and sexier.
Under Sullivan’s direction, the seven-year war never lets up. Even as scenes are being played on stage, soldiers roam the theater aisles and do battle just outside the non-existent walls of the stark industrial set. Mark Menard’s martial sound design of blasting explosions and blazing guns adds to the dread that once a war is begun, it never, ever stops.
In a rare moment of sanity, the combatants agree to cease hostilities and send their two mightiest warriors into combat, mano a mano. The Trojans enlist the noble Hector (Bill Heck, who owns the stage), to be their hero. But the Greeks’ top dog, Achilles (artfully crazy, in Louis Cancelmi’s cunning performance), is lounging in his tent with his beloved Patroclus (Tom Pecinka), and refuses to come out.
So Hector fights that “beef-witted” lug, Ajax (an antic comic perf from Alex Breaux), instead. That turns out to have been a ploy advanced by the oily Ulysses (Corey Stoll, looking creepy in suit and tie) to goad Achilles into fighting Hector.
Now, that’s the fight we all want to see. But Shakespeare denies us that bloodthirsty satisfaction because, as the play keeps telling us, friend betrays friend, lover betrays lover, and even heroes relinquish their honor when war rages over a land for so long that we’re hardly human at the end.