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How long has it been since you last saw or read a Shakespeare play without knowing the ending beforehand? Troilus and Cressida was such a work when I first encountered it as an undergrad and again three decades later in 1999 when I was mesmerized by the National Theatre production directed by Trevor Nunn on the banks of the Thames. And yes, I revisited Troilus, now presented outdoors by the Montford Park Players through August 22, knowing almost as little about what I would soon see as when I first opened the Signet Classic edition back in the ‘60s.
Among the Bard’s works, Troilus is as unfamiliar and infrequently produced in America as Pericles, Cymbeline, or Titus Andronicus. But Troilus is unique among these works – and in the entire Shakespeare canon. Pericles and Cymbeline have long satisfying story arcs like The Winter’s Tale, and like so many Shakespearean tragedies, you know Titus is toast as soon as you see his name on the title page. Troilus doesn’t fit either of those templates: it has a category-defying, epic temperament with a storyline that starts and ends in medias res, and the Montford Park production at the Hazel Robinson Amphitheatre gives ample scope to all its comic, tragic, romantic, and satirical inclinations. You too might forget the storyline within the next 11 years, even if you don’t see 800 or more plays as I will. But certain moments, like the denouement of Nunn’s version, can be indelible.
Homer and Chaucer are the most famous sources for this script. Homer supplied the renowned Greek and Trojan warriors: Achilles and Hector, Agamemnon and Ulysses, Ajax and Diomedes, Menelaus and Paris, Priam and Nestor, Patroclus and Aeneas. Chaucer immortalized the lovers in his Troilus and Criseyde, along with the unctuous Pandarus who brought them together. The two stories are deftly interwoven, bearing a distinctive Shakespearean stamp in the characters of Pandarus, Achilles, and Ulysses. Pandarus brings Troilus and Cressida together during a lull in the Trojan War, while Troilus’s elder brother Hector seeks to end the stalemate by challenging the Greeks to send their best warrior forth to meet him in single-handed combat. There can be little doubt that Hector is angling toward a showdown with the mighty Achilles, but by this time, Achilles is sulking in his tent with his bosom pal Patroclus, not putting on his storied shield and armor for anybody.
Complications that ensue pit personal loyalty against patriotism and romantic fidelity against wartime expediency. Directing the show, Jason Williams (who also plays the shamefaced cuckold Menelaus) has a sure feel for the eccentricities, enmities, and egos that make the politics of Greece’s ruling elite such a fascinating stew. We also savor the intricate web of betrayals that begins with Troilus’s acquiescence to an exchange of Cressida for a Trojan captive held by the Greeks. Each betrayal afterwards is more distressing than the one before until we reach the most horrifying of all, Achilles’ coldblooded, vengeful betrayal of honor and chivalry.
Working with an all-volunteer cast and crew in their 38th season, Montford Park has evolved a product that should not be confused with standard-issue community theatre. Facility with the Bard’s language and pentameters isn’t evenly spread across the entire dramatis personae of Troilus – and there is doubling, tripling, and even quadrupling to fill all the roles – but this script mercilessly demands a company with depth, and Montford decisively proves it can deliver. Particularly impressive is the massive Darren Marshall, bringing out all the ruthless, monumental egotism of Achilles, but Magdalen Zinky is a bewitching Cressida, artfully mixing the maiden’s giddiness and the woman’s frailty.
Scott Bean’s wily orotund Ulysses, Travis Kelley’s lovably blockish Ajax, Chris Stanton’s scornfully manipulative Diomedes, and Hamilton Goodman’s tedious old Nestor are nearly in the same lofty class, delightful throughout. The leading Trojan brothers, Jonathan Milner as Troilus and Matt Taverner as Hector, are somewhat green and bland next to the Greek meanies, but they toughen up nicely as we approach the climactic battle. David Mycoff has a firmer grip on his character as a comically dandified Pandarus – it’s his grasp of his lines that is sometimes worrisome.
Williams doesn’t apply any radical twists to the script, unless you consider it perverse to cast women in men’s roles four centuries after the men in Shakespeare’s company played all the women. Esha Grover does no harm as the straight-arrow Aeneas, but casting Trinity Smith as Patroclus may go too far in neutralizing the homoerotic cloud that has hung over the youth’s friendship with Achilles since the days of Homer. Smith doesn’t even seem to like the beefy Marshall, but she doubles nicely as Helen of Troy, subtly affirming the chacun à son goût principle.
Speaking of subtlety, Jill Ehrsam’s costumes effectively differentiate the Trojans from the Greeks and – by a telling color match – hint at Cressida’s wayward loyalties. Williams’ lighting skills came into play most assertively after intermission when darkness had descended, meshing well with his direction. The Hazel Robinson is a wide two-tiered space, vaguely similar to London’s restored Globe Theatre, well-suited to a thickly populated drama like Troilus. From edge to edge and top to bottom, Williams uses all of his space naturally and effectively, moving the action along with a graceful fluidity.
This production runs through August 22. For details, see our calendar.