NEW YORK—Honor in combat may be a noble if achieved, but this goal often falls by the wayside when the fighting begins. So it is in William Shakespeare’s “Troilus and Cressida.” This rarely performed but topical piece is given an excellent revival at the Delacorte Theater through Aug. 14.
The war between the Greeks and Trojans is now in its seventh year. The conflict begins when the Trojan prince Paris (Maurice Jones) spirits away beautiful Helen (Tara Ashe), wife of the Greek commander Menelaus (Forrest Malloy). Various factions of the Grecian Empire, including Ulysses (Corey Stoll) and Menelaus’ brother, the Greek general Agamemnon (John Douglas Thompson), have vowed to get her back.
The Greeks lay siege to the city of Troy, but so far have been unable to conquer it. Currently, a temporary truce is in effect as each side tries to figure out its next move.
In addition to fighting with Troy, the Greek commanders are battling dissention with each other. The Greek warrior Achilles (Louis Cancelmi), whose deeds in battle have gained him a rabid following among the troops, has grown tried of the endless fighting and has retreated to his tent with his lover Patroclus (Tom Pecinka); with a diva-like attitude, he refuses to arm himself again for battle or to even discuss the matter.
When Hector (Bill Heck), Achilles’ Trojan counterpart, issues a challenge for the Greeks to send out their best warrior to meet him in single combat, Ulysses hatches a scheme to use Ajax (Alex Breaux), a strong, but rather dull-witted Greek warrior, as a sacrificial lamb. The commanders hope that once Hector so publicly defeats Ajax, it will shame Achilles to return to the fray.
While these events unfold, Troilus (Andrew Burnap), the youngest brother of Hector and a warrior in his own right, has fallen in love with the beautiful and strong-willed Cressida (Ismenia Mendes). Daughter of the Trojan priest Calchas (Miguel Perez), who has since defected to the Greeks, she’s currently under the protection of her lecherous old uncle Pandarus (John Glover).
Pandarus sees in his niece her love for Troilus and is determined arrange a match between them. Pandarus’ body may have been ravaged by diseases of the flesh, but his mind and rather seamy sense of humor remain as sharp as ever.
Often considered one of Shakespeare’s problem plays, and certainly one of his most disconcerting, few works better illustrate the hypocrisy of war.
The work shows how the concept of honor in battle is incompatible with the wish to stay alive; it is only those willing to win at almost any cost who triumph. This cost includes those in command ignobly using whatever pawns happen to be available, be it a solider or a beautiful woman, to achieve their ends.
Not content to blame just those in power, Shakespeare also takes aim at the idea of honor as it applies to nationalism. First the Greeks are determined to regain their honor with the return of Helen; and later when Troilus and Paris insist the Greeks’ latest demands—which include the Trojans paying for the cost of the war—be rejected.
Hand in hand with the idea of honor is the issue of trust: trust in one’s commanders, trust in one’s family, and most of all, trust in the one you love. Together only briefly before the politics of war force them apart, Troilus reminds Cressida repeatedly to stay true to him. His comments, however, only enrage Cressida who takes him to task by asking how he could question her love after the vows they have pledged to each other.
Yet even after he acknowledges the fear of her being untrue lies in his own weakness and jealousy, Troilus continues to repeat the request.
The play certainly defies easy classification, with elements of comedy, romance, and tragedy told against a historical backdrop, one mood giving way to another at a moment’s notice. Director Daniel Sullivan solves this problem by having the entire cast play their roles brimming with passion.
It helps that none of the numerous fight scenes by Michael Rossmy and Rick Sordelet feel at all staged. All feel rather completely in the moment when performed.
Mendes makes excellent Cressida. The character’s inherently strong will gives way to a schoolgirl quality when consumed by love.
Burnap is very good as the earnest but somewhat flawed Troilus. Often overly eager to fight, he is as tongue-tied as any young man when it comes to matters of the heart.
Heck perfectly embodies Hector, a warrior who prizes honor and virtue above all else, even when it’s clear that such attitude can get him killed.
Thompson is strong as Agamemnon. His very appearance commands respect, and he shows his wisdom by not being above taking advice when needed.
Stoll is good as the seemingly thoughtful Ulysses, continually working behind the scenes to ensure events unfold in the Greek’s favor.
Edward James Hyland strikes just the right note as the old warrior Nestor, and Glover cuts a pathetic figure as Pandarus, who literally dying from his sins, still has a few tricks up his sleeve.
“Troilus and Cressida” offers no concrete ending, rather just a conclusion to one section of a struggle destined to continue for several years to come, as reverberates for us today with the global conflicts which have stretched on for years with no clear end in sight.
A sobering final lesson for those who must try to exist in such a situation and those who are sent out by others to do their fighting for them.
Also in the cast are Nneka Okafor, Kario Pereira-Bailey, Andrew Chaffee, Sanjit De Silva, Paul Deo Jr., Nicholas Hoge, Michael Bradley Cohen, Zach Appelman, Max Casella, Connor Bond, Jin Ha, Hunter Hoffman, Keilyn Durrel Jones, and Grace Rao.
‘Troilus and Cressida’
The Delactore Theater in Central Park at 81st Street
Running Time 3 hours, 5 minutes
Closes: Aug. 14
Judd Hollander is a member of the Drama Desk and reviewer for stagebuzz.com