Sunday, July 22, 2012

Play review: Troilus and Cressida

Friday night, I attended a performance of Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon.  The production is directed by Rob Melrose.

The play loosely recounts events that occurred near the end of the Trojan War (as originally recounted by Shakespeare's literary ancestor, Homer).  King Priam's youngest son, Troilus, falls in love with the beautiful Cressida, daughter of Calchas, a high-ranking Trojan who has defected to the Greeks.  No sooner are the two lovers brought together by Cressida's uncle, Pandarus, than the treacherous diplomacy of war separates them.  As their tragedy unfolds, Greeks and Trojans vie with each other and themselves for political advantage.  Each of the great Greek and Trojan heroes claims to love Honor above all else.  But actions reveal that Ego is the true object of their devotions.

My expectations for the play were high.  Being a life-long Oregonian, I've had many opportunities to see Shakespeare productions in Ashland, over the years.  There have been some great ones.  (MacBeth in 1979 and again in 1995, Othello in 1992).

Alas, and with all due respect to Mr. Melrose, this production was not among them.  Not by a long shot. 

The acting was excellent.  Raffi Barsoumian put his heart into the role of Troilus and Tala Ashe made a valiant effort as Cressida which I felt was undermined by Melrose's interpretation of the role.  (More about that later.)  Mark Murphey was delightful as the owlish Ulysses, and Michael Elich and Barzin Akhavan both put in high-energy perfomances as Thersites and Pandarus, respectively.  But my favorite performance came from Bernard White as the noble Hector, Troy's great hero.  Shakespeare's Hector is virtuous and sanguine, and White is completely convincing.

The problems with the production, however, were several.  Firstly, it uses quasi-modern uniforms and weaponry when depicting soldiers in the field, which, I imagine is meant to impose currency and relevance.  But it's been done before.  Over much.  Remember the machine-gun toting Romans in Jesus Christ Superstar?  Or how about the recent Rob Fiennes movie-adaptation of Coriolanus?  Delivering lines in iambic pentameter while firing automatic weapons can be made to work on the big screen.  But on stage it didn't come off well.  It brought to mind children playing with toy guns.

Secondly, I felt that Melrose's production suffered from a lack of clear purpose.  It flits back and forth between comedy and drama and acheives neither.  The courtship scenes are presented in comic fashion with Cressida's uncle Pandarus assigned the role of clown.  But the scenes of battle and diplomacy are presented with grave menace.  The audience' emotions strobe between delight and disgust.  It is as if Melrose tried to produce a play that would please all audiences:  those that prefer frolicking comedy as well as those that like gut-churning moral examination.

Then there is the shaky interpretation of the roles of Cressida and Patroclus.  While scholars have often speculated that Achilles and Patroclus were lovers, Melrose forgoes subtlety and thrusts the relationship to the fore.  In this era of out-of-the-closet gayness, I suppose it's the politically-correct stance.  But I'm not sure that Shakespeare would approve of the lack of subtlety.

Regarding Cressida:  In the playbill, Melrose claims "Shakespeare gives Cressida a self-awareness as a woman in the politics of love that is striking and modern."  And he runs with that idea.  Maybe just a hair too far.  Cressida, a feminist hero?  Color me doubtful.

In his playbill remarks, Melrose says of Troilus and Cressida, "[This play is Shakepeare's] Moby Dick, his Ulysses, his Iliad."

Well, any Shakespeare lover is a friend of mine, but --and I hesitate to even say this --I don't think this play is Shakespeare's best work.  It's no Hamlet.  It's no MacBeth or King Lear or Othello.  The play was never produced on stage until the 20th century and that may be a telling fact.  It meanders.  It wanders.  It lacks focus.

So, all in all, this was not the best experience I've had at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.  But I still love Ashland.  And I will always love Shakespeare.  I imagine I'll go back someday.

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