Shakespeare’s range was enormous. He could charm with Twelfth Night, enchant with Winter’s Tale, go deep with Hamlet and Lear. But what if only one play of his survived? And what if that play were Troilus and Cressida? No matter how people lauded him while he lived — “honey-tongued” poet of “sugared sonnets,” etc. — Troilus would stamp him as one of the most cynical, blackout-disillusioned writers of his age. No. Of all time.
Troilus is Shakespeare’s take on Homer’s Iliad. A thousand ships come to Troy to bring Helen back to Greece (probably more like 100 ships, scholars now say, or as few as 10). All the “heroes” are there: noble Hector and his brother Paris, who stole the Spartan queen; Agamemnon, leader of the Greek invasion; his cuckolded brother Menelaus; wily Ulysses (with a wooden horse up his sleeve); and blonde Achilles, who talks the talk but fails to walk the walk.
Rather than buff Homer’s Bronze Age idols, Shakespeare assaults them. Helen’s a weapon of mass destruction, padded by rhetorical flurries and skimpy justifications (“she’s a theme, of honor and renown…”). And the heroes? Slimy, self-regarding thugs — on both sides — who bounce around the Dardan Plain like overinflated balloons, more eager to defend their reputations than fight. And when they do fight, the myths trundle out the door.
In the midst of this chaos, Shakespeare spins the archetypal tale of infidelity. Troilus loves Cressida, and she him. Then her father Calchas has a vision of Troy’s fall and flees to the Greek camp. To secure a place among their pavilions, Calchas pimps his daughter to the generals. She goes and splits in two: half still loving Troilus, the other having to cavort to save her life. Troilus becomes “as true as Troilus,” but only for a few lines; after that he’s angrier over losing a horse than Cressida. Pandarus, who brought them together, becomes the archetypal panderer and Cressida the icon of falsehood, at least in Trojan eyes.
Helen went to Troy, Cressida to the Greeks. Railing Thersites says everything’s just “war and lechery.” But even here Shakespeare trips you up. Look beneath the sexist labels, and Cressida’s one of his wisest creations: she knows that “men prize the thing ungained” and that “things won are done; joy’s soul lies in the doing.” She also knows that, to both Trojans and Greeks, she’s just a “thing.”
Betrayal is everywhere. And it starts with Shakespeare’s betrayal of Homer. So why, if the play’s a photographic negative of the original, did Goethe say, “If you would see Shakespeare’s mind unfettered, read Troilus and Cressida”?
Shakespeare may have written the play not for the Globe Theatre and its “groundlings,” but for lawyers at the Inns of Court. This restricted, literate audience freed him not only to gouge Homer with “monumental mockery,” but to raise questions about order, value (“what is aught but as ’tis valued?”; what can justify the cost of a war?), time, and perception. Throughout, what we see is at odds with what we hear or remember from Homer. Cressida sums up the conflict: “Minds sway’d by eyes are full of turpitude.” This is Shakespeare at his most philosophical. He wrote Troilus around the time he wrote Hamlet, and, as scholar Marjorie Garber says, the play “might almost have been written by Hamlet.”
Goethe said “read” the play, not stage it. Until the 1960s, when it suddenly became “contemporary,” few companies mounted Troilus. It last appeared in San Diego, at the Old Globe, in 1976. One reason: it’s a theatrical monster, demanding actors with muscular physicality and the vocal chops to deliver some of the Bard’s finest poetry. Another reason: you must cram the Trojan War onto a stage.
Aside from anything else, Compass Theatre deserves praise for attempting such an epic task. Director Welton Jones and George Weinberg-Harter (who plays Pandarus and Agamemnon) have done a smart job of trimming a script that’s pure literature when read, but that waxes verbose when performed. They’ve turned the small Compass Theatre (formerly 6th@Penn) stage into a plus. A wall rotates for easy scene changes. And having the actors so up close and personal mirrors Shakespeare’s warts-and-all approach to the legends.
The opening-night performance, however, left much to be desired. The acting ranged from amateurish reciting to odd emphases to sprinting through the poetry (if you get to speak the lines “when time is old and hath forgot itself,/ When waterdrops have worn the stones of Troy,” PLEASE don’t mumble them, at top speed, to the floor). Most of the cast had yet to internalize their roles. And the better performances — Michael Nieto as Aeneas and Ulysses, Adam Parker as Paris and a drooling Thersites — exposed the others’ weaknesses.
Only 9 actors play over 25 characters. Sometimes the double-casting’s effective (Laura Kaplan’s a radiant Helen and a frantic, cursed Cassandra). But it also makes for strangeness: King Menelaus, Helen’s husband, as an octogenarian? And, for audience members unfamiliar with the story, it can make for confusion.
The Compass production may, or may not, grow during its run. But then again, if the “past is prologue” for what’s to come, this may be your only chance to see a Troilus in San Diego for the next 32 years.
Troilus and Cressida, by William Shakespeare
Compass Theatre, 3704 Sixth Avenue, Hillcrest
Directed by Welton Jones; cast: Edward Eigner, Michael Zlotnik, George Weinberg-Harter, Brenna Foley, Laura Kaplan, Michael Nieto, Scott Amiotte, Adam Parker, Gerard Maxwell; scenic design, Christian Lopez; costumes, Shelly Williams; lighting, Roger Henderson
Playing through October 5; Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-688-9210.