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The Drums of War 

The final installment in the Shotgun Players' protest trilogy

Wednesday, Aug 14 2002
Troilus and Cressida is one of those Shakespeare plays no one ever thinks about, let alone performs. The script is dense and bloated with speeches by Greek heroes (especially Ulysses). It makes fun of heroism, and war, by turning the classical paragons of warrior virtue on their heads, and in Shakespeare's time it was misunderstood. The cynical view of Greek heroes as pompous windbags was all wrong for 1609. (This Troilus went all but unperformed until 1898; Dryden wrote an adaptation that theaters put on instead.) By the 20th century, though, Shakespeare's version had started to make sense, and modern companies tend to revive it, if at all, in wartime. The Shotgun Players' current production of Troilus rounds out director Patrick Dooley's "personal trilogy" of peace-urging plays set around the Trojan War.

Shakespeare shows both armies demoralized and tired in year seven of the 10-year struggle. Greek generals wonder why they should fight for Helen when Achilles himself has quit the battlefield to lounge in his tent with Patroclus. The Trojans wonder if they should just send Helen back. Hector thinks she's not worth defending, but there are questions of honor ("I would have the soil of her fair rape/ Wiped off in honourable keeping her," says her new husband, Paris). A young Trojan called Troilus falls in love with Cressida, a traitor's daughter, and the greasy pimp Pandarus arranges their trysts, although Pandarus can't keep the girl from being handed to the Greeks during a peace negotiation. Cressida vows fidelity to Troilus but picks up with the first Greek soldier she finds, and by the end of the play all classical notions of loyalty and virtue have been destroyed.

The man who bids them goodbye is a ragged Greek named Thersites. Clive Worsley plays him as a wiry, knock-kneed fool, chiding heroes like Agamemnon or Ulysses in messy prose that clashes with their versified speech. His hospital shirt and cap make him look half-mad, like Kimberley Wilday's Cassandra (who wears a straitjacket), but he is, of course, the sanest figure on the stage. Worsley gives what I think of as an old-fashioned Shotgun Players performance -- dirty, inappropriate, beautifully knavish -- but the problem with the play overall is a lack of the same spirit in the rest of the cast. And the cast is huge.

The main exception is Reid Davis, who gives another standout performance as Pandarus. He wears white shoes, a velvet coat and vest, and a loose, open shirt with dangling French cuffs. Shakespeare wrote him as a syphilitic parody of the romantic servant of true love in Chaucer's poem "Troilus and Cressida" (which was already a classic in Shakespeare's day); Davis nails the role. He's devoted to pandering itself, not to love, and the affair he arranges gives him an obvious voyeuristic thrill. Two years ago, also for Shotgun, Davis played the helpful friar in Romeo and Juliet (the one who arranges the deadly marriage); he's in a similar role here, but with a few extra layers of slime.

Frieda Naphsica de Lackner has a clever, flat-footed charm as Cressida, and she rises to eloquence in the formal speeches, but she has almost no stage chemistry with Tyler Fazakerley, who plays Troilus. Fazakerley seems uncomfortable with Shakespeare's language, and costume designer Valera Coble has dressed him in a weird Trojan uniform (studded leather jacket, camouflage pants) that makes him and the other Trojans look like recent escapees from the mosh pit at 924 Gilman. The Greeks wear stiff blazers with gold shoulder braids, but it's the Greeks, not the Trojans, who've been camping out for seven years. So how come their clothes are so sharp? Whatever Coble and Dooley meant to express with the costumes, the message comes out confusing and blurred.

Fazakerley line-reads as Troilus, and he's not alone. Robert Martinez, Rica Anderson, Stephen Bass, Joseph Tally, Patrick Dooley, and Michael Cheng (as Ulysses, Helen, Paris, Priam, Diomedes, and Helenus, respectively) all seem unsettled in their roles. The language is especially hard in this play because Shakespeare stretched his vocabulary to make his heroes sound pompous. Dooley and Joan McBrien (who co-directs) have ordered the cast to ham it up, but the flip and dirty jokes might work better if the performances were surer. Shakespeare gives us a bleak world where men go to war for no good cause -- knowing the cause is no good -- but bleakness is not an excuse for a toss-off acting style. The production as a whole fails to plumb the horror of the terrible nihilism Shakespeare portrays.

It does work, though, as a third play in Dooley's personal trilogy. All three shows have been protests. Last summer's Iphigenia in Aulis was written by Euripides as a complaint against the traditional Homeric belief in the gods as an excuse for war. There Will Be No Trojan War, performed last December, was a rapid response to the Afghanistan invasion, written originally as a howl of protest by Jean Giraudoux in the run-up to World War II. Troilus works, almost, as an objection to a new Gulf War. I say "almost" because the acting isn't serious enough and because I happen to think toppling Saddam is a good idea, oil interests be damned. (The real Trojan campaign was probably a trade war for shipping rights in the strait of Bosporus.) But the prospect of marching drums on CNN and windy speeches about "courage" from Dan Rather is enough to make anybody's skin crawl, and I wish Thersites, as Clive Worsley plays him, could stick around till the end of the year.


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