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Troilus and Cressida
By Charles Wright

One touch of nature makes the whole world kin, / That all, with one consent praise new-born gauds, / Though they are made and moulded of things past, / And give to dust that is a little gilt / More laud than gilt o'er dusted.
— Ullyses in Troilus and Cressida, Act III, Scene iii
John Douglas Thompson and Sanjit De Silva as Agamemnon and Aeneas. (photo by Joan Marcus)
Ismenia Mendes, Andrew Burnap and John Glover (photo byJoan Marcus)
The current Public Theater production of Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida features a haunting cameo by Tala Ashe as Helen, the woman whose beauty, in Marlowe's words, "launch'd a thousand ships and burnt the topless towers of Ilium."

Ashe, who also plays Andromache, has only one scene as Helen in this modern-dress presentation of a famously uneven Shakespearean play (at times, a dark drama of societal corruption; at others, a satiric comedy; and, despite the title, not principally concerned with the misbegotten romance of Troilus and Cressida). Though brief, Helen's sequence is emblematic of how director Daniel Sullivan reinforces the anti-heroic themes of Shakespeare's text throughout the evening, debunking chivalric ideas and stressing the futility of war.

Helen is married to Menelaus (Forrest Malloy) and sister-in-law of the Greeks' military commander, Agamemnon (John Douglas Thompson). According to The Iliad of Homer (one of Shakespeare's principal sources for the play), Helen was abducted by Prince Paris and his Trojan cohorts, an act of human trafficking that precipitated the ongoing war between Greece and Troy.

When Shakespeare's play begins, seven years have passed since Helen left home. The Trojan War is dragging along, with the Greeks encamped long-term outside the walls of Troy and the two sides at an impasse

Troilus and Cressida challenges Homer's account of Helen's separation from her husband. Shakespeare's Menelaus is milquetoast, a nonentity compared to Paris (Maurice Jones) and his dynamic royal brothers (Andrew Burnap as Troilus, Bill Heck as Hector, Kario Pereira-Bailey as Helenus, and Andrew Chaffee as Margareton).

The Helen on view in Sullivan's production doesn't appear to be a woman who would tarry longer than necessary with a dishrag like Menelaus or easily submit to force. But whether abducted or a free agent, she has been living with Paris, confined in a city under siege, long enough that their relationship may have lost its early luster. And now members of the Trojan royal family are debating the possibility of cutting their losses on the war by sending her back to the Greeks.

In Sullivan's production, Helen's fatal beauty is intact. But her spirits have been damaged by domesticated passion; gallons of strong drink have dulled her charms without extinguishing her pain; and she tries too hard to be merry and bright. It's a virtuosic turn by Ashe, accomplished through physical and vocal performance and the subtext of a few lines of dialog, fortifying the play's skeptical account of love and war (and reminiscent of reports about the sad late days of Lady Diana Spencer and Grace Kelly).

Inspired by Chaucer as well as Homer, Shakespeare wrote this comedy-drama around 1602 (a couple of years after Hamlet). It was performed infrequently before the 20th century. After World War One, audiences proved receptive to its portrayal of war as degrading, inglorious, and wasteful. Events around the world since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, make the play seem distinctly up-to-date.

During previews, this Central Park production encountered some bad fortune, including a heat wave and the forced withdrawal of David Harbour, the initial Achilles, due to injury. The opening night was postponed to accommodate Harbour's replacement, the superb Louis Cancelmi. What's now on stage at the Delacorte was worth the wait.

David Zinn's scenic design includes six panels that pivot for entrances and exits by the 28 actors in the cast. At crucial moments, the panels swing back to reveal a world beyond the principal playing area. In the battle scenes late in the play, those moving panels permit Sullivan and his actors to create a number of exhilarating visual surprises. Director and designers (lighting designer Robert Wierzel, composer Dan Moses Schreier, sound designer Mark Menard, as well as Zinn) deserve considerable credit for managing to surprise a New York audience, without resort to gimmickry, when the script is a familiar one.

Cancelmi shows no signs of having come to his job later than the other cast members. Achilles, the insubordinate warrior, is a role that demands range and emotional depth. Cancelmi plays it with a touch of Brando that's very effective.

Achilles's affection is divided between a Trojan princess (an off-stage character) and Patroclus (Tom Pecinka), one of his companions-in-arms. Cancelmi and Sullivan emphasize the character's ambidextrous sexuality, but not beyond what Shakespeare's text can support.

At the start of the play, when Achilles has forsworn combat, Cancelmi is all arrogant insouciance and self-indulgent sensuality. (He engages in some bear-like horseplay with Patroclus that underscores Achilles's alpha status and sets a racy, up-to-the-minute stamp on his interpretation of the character.) When the warrior instincts kick in, he's fierce and patriotic. Later, retrieving Patroclus's corpse from the battlefield, he's heartbroken and heartbreaking. Cancelmi's is one of those save-the-day performances that Park audiences will recall for years to come.

The entire cast of Troilus and Cressida is remarkably strong, even by Public Theater standards. Thompson as Agamemnon, Edward James Hyland as Nestor, and Corey Stoll as Ulysses transform Shakespeare's Greek leaders into convincing military bureaucrats of the present day (with a little help from Zinn in his capacity as costume designer). Stoll, who delivers one of Shakespeare's great speeches, plays Ulysses as a Wharton School militarist, transporting board-room expertise (and PowerPoint presentations) to the battlefield.

Alex Breaux, who plays Ajax, is developing a reputation for intelligent interpretations of dumb-shit characters — most recently, the morally compromised swimmer in Lucas Hnath's Red Speedo. Breaux finds ample humor, without an iota of comic shtick, in the shallows of Ajax's mind, character, and conduct.

As Thersites, a rustic wag who travels with the Greek army, Max Casella offers a running commentary on the armies, their long irrational war, the rivalry between Ajax and Achilles, and the debased nature of society. Casella imbues Thersites's diatribes with a robust buffoonery that rises at times to hilarity; and he gets to deliver the play's best-known line: "Lechery, lechery, still wars and lechery; nothing else holds fashion."

Three years ago, John Glover embodied the mystifying evil of Macbeth in his over-the-top portrayal of one of the witches in Jack O'Brien's Lincoln Center Theater production. Here he's a trifle less flamboyant, though similarly sinister, as Pandarus, corrupt uncle of Cressida (Ismenia Mendes).

Limping and riddled with lesions, Glover's Pandarus is at once repugnant and compelling. In Sullivan's arrangement of the text, he gets the first and last words (the last being to "bequeath" his "diseases" to the audience). He's a gleeful go-between for illicit connections, a rogue who pimps out his niece without remorse. Glover appears to delight in every minute on stage. And when such a masterly actor enjoys himself, it's guaranteed the spectators will have a jolly time, too, despite the dark vision of the play.

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Troilus And Cressida by William Shakespeare
Directed by Daniel Sullivan
Cast: Zach Appelman (Diomedes); Tala Ashe (Helen, Andromache); Connor Bond (Ensemble); Alex Breaux (Ajax); Andrew Burnap (Troilus);Louis Cancelmi (Achilles); Max Casella (Thersites); Andrew Chaffee (Ensemble); Michael Bradley Cohen (Ensemble); Paul Deo Jr. (Ensemble); Sanjit De Silva (Aeneas); John Glover (Pandarus); Jin Ha (Ensemble); Bill Heck (Hector); Hunter Hoffman (Ensemble); Nicholas Hoge (Ensemble); Edward James Hyland (Nestor); KeiLyn Durrel Jones (Ensemble); Maurice Jones (Paris); Forrest Malloy (Ensemble); Ismenia Mendes (Cressida); Nneka Okafor (Cassandra); Tom Pecinka (Patroclus); Kario Pereira-Bailey (Ensemble); Miguel Perez (Priam, Calchas); Grace Rao (Ensemble); Corey Stoll (Ulysses); John Douglas Thompson (Agamemnon)
Set and Costume Design by David Zinn
Lighting Design by Robert Wierzel
Sound Design by Mark Menard
Hair and Makeup Design by Cookie Jordan
Original Music by Dan Moses Schreier
Co-Fight Directors Michael Rossmy and Rick Sordelet
Voice Coach Alithea Phillips
Production Stage Manager James Latus
Stage Manager Buzz Cohen
T From 7/19/16; closing 8/14/16
All performances begin at 8:00pm

Running time: 3 hours including a 15 minute intermission
Delacorte Theater Central Park
Reviewed by Charles Wright August 5, 2016

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