Unarming Troilus

I am not a Shakespearean purist.  There is nothing inherently wrong with, say, relocating The Merchant of Venice to present-day Las Vegas, with handing Macbeth a machine gun, or with reading The Tempest and deciding it should look like this.  But the ideas should always be generated by the text instead of imposed onto them.  The problem begins when outrageous interpretations are staged for no discernible reason other than outrageousness itself.

Cry, Trojans!, which takes its text from Troilus and Cressida, began as a collaboration between The Wooster Group and the Royal Shakespeare Company: The Wooster Group played the Trojans, the RSC played the Greeks, and the two companies rehearsed separately.  It actually sounds ingenious.  But now, at St. Ann’s Warehouse, the English have departed, and the noisy, lopsided result has the Wooster Group dressed like Native Americans and putting on black masks and British accents whenever the Greeks show up.  In the background, four screens play Splendor in the Grass, Smoke Signals, and Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, and much of the blocking syncs up with the actors in those movies.  There is also a screen that informs us which scene we are watching (there are seventeen in total), and considering how tedious Cry, Trojans! becomes, this acts as a sort of blessing, like the timecode on the VCR during a particularly boring movie.

All of which is an especial shame since Troilus and Cressida is one Shakespeare’s oddest and most underperformed plays: in the 1609 Quarto and the First Folio it was described variously as a comedy, a tragedy, and a history, indicating that even its original readers didn’t know what to do with it.  It is a love story with unsympathetic protagonists and a war story almost entirely without fighting.  Its source is the prototypical heroic tale, Homer’s Iliad, but it is bereft of heroism.  None of this appears to concern the actors, who seem to have spent little time thinking about the text.  They are frequently difficult to understand, there seems to be no emotional or intellectual coherence to the action, and ultimately everything is swallowed up by an ill-conceived but all-present concept.

In the seventeenth century, John Dryden rewrote Troilus and Cressida to shed it of its “rubbish,” and in fact, the play wasn’t properly performed until the twentieth century.  Which means there is no excuse for Cry, Trojans!  A kooky Midsummer, while unfortunate, is understandable when new productions seem to spring up like uninspired Whac-a-Moles every season.  But this is a text that really hasn’t been able to speak for itself yet.  It is one that deserves to be taken on its own terms before it is ruined by indiscriminate creativity.

Cry, Trojans! runs through April 19 at St. Ann’s Warehouse.  29 Jay Street  New York, NY.  2 hours 15 minutes.  One intermission.

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Aaron Botwick

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