'Troilus and Cressida': Theater Review

Courtesy of Joan Marcus
From left: Ismenia Mendes, Andrew Burnap and John Glover in 'Troilus and Cressida'
Daniel Sullivan's incisive staging and a fine ensemble help make the Bard's problematic work come to occasional stirring life.

In the summer's second Shakespeare in the Park production, the Public Theater tackles this rarely performed play set during the Trojan War, with a cast that includes Louis Cancelmi, Corey Stoll and John Glover.

There's little danger of falling asleep during the final minutes of the Public Theater's new production of Troilus and Cressida in Central Park. In Daniel Sullivan's modern-dress staging, the climactic battle scene between the Trojans and Greeks features the warriors outfitted in combat fatigues and shooting automatic weapons. With the guns often pointed directly at the audience and deafening explosions abounding, it induces a queasiness that is definitely not for the faint-hearted.

There's a reason Shakespeare's 1602 work, variously described as a tragedy and a problem play, is rarely performed. Taking place seven years into the Trojan War and inspired by Homer's Iliad, it is one of the writer's most frustrating, narratively disjointed works, awkwardly interweaving a minor love story into a convoluted depiction of military intrigues. Lacking the clear narrative and transcendent poetry of many of the Bard's other plays, the drama can prove trying for directors and audiences alike.

Sullivan, abetted by an excellent ensemble, does about as well as one can with this difficult play. He stages the complicated action with fast-paced vigor and clarity, and imbues the violent battle scenes with visceral intensity.

This is also a particularly sexy rendition. It puts plenty of skimpily dressed, hard-bodied men on display, and makes torrid work of the romantic relationship between the titular characters (Andrew Burnap and Ismenia Mendes). The overall atmosphere is so steamy that it's easy to see why the beautiful queen being held captive by the Trojans, Helen (Tala Ashe), is constantly swilling red wine.

The plotting is mind-numbingly intricate; much of it has to do with the Greek military leaders trying to induce their greatest warrior, Achilles (Louis Cancelmi, replacing an injured David Harbour), to join the action. That it registers as powerfully as it does is a testament to the fine performances. John Douglas Thompson is commanding as the Greek general, Agamemnon; Corey Stoll (HBO's House of Cards, FX's The Strain) has charisma to burn as the wily Ulysses; and Bill Heck makes an imposing Hector, the greatest of the Trojan warriors.

John Glover has some delicious comic moments as Pandarus, Cressida's licentious uncle, who schemes to get the young lovers together; Max Casella is a wonderfully acerbic Thersites, the low-class Greek who provides cynical, foul-mouthed commentary throughout; and Alex Breaux, recently seen off-Broadway as the dimwitted competitive swimmer in Red Speedo, is consistently amusing as the similarly buffoonish Greek warrior, Ajax.

The staging boasts a few clever touches, too, such as the one-on-one battle between Ajax and Hector, depicted as a boxing match held in a barb-wired ring. But other than the contemporary setting — David Zinn's monotonous set design consists of a few ratty pieces of furniture ringed on both sides by broken chairs and other such debris — Sullivan applies relatively few heavy-handed directorial conceits. This is a Troilus and Cressida in which the play is very much the thing, and that, ironically, is its chief weakness.

Venue: Delacorte Theater, New York
Cast: Zach Appelman, Tala Ashe, Connor Bond, Alex Breaux, Andrew Burnap, Louis Cancelmi, Max Casella, Andrew Chaffee, Michael Bradley Cohen, Sanjit De Silva, Paul Deo Jr., John Glover, Jin Ha, Bill Heck, Hunter Hoffman, Nicholas Hoge, Edward James Hyland, Keilyn Durrell Jones, Maurice Jones, Forrest Malloy, Ismenia Mendes, Nneka Okafor, Tom Pecinka, Kario Pereira-Bailey, Miguel Perez, Grace Rao, Corey Stoll, John Douglas Thompson
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Daniel Sullivan
Set and costume designer: David Zinn
Lighting designer: Robert Wierzel
Sound designer: Mark Menard
Music: Dan Moses Schreier
Presented by the Public Theater