by Lisa Drostova for East Bay
Blowin' in the Wind
Troilus and Cressida is considered the most troubling
of Shakespeare's plays.
BY LISA DROSTOVA
Shakespeare's plays tend to be organized into four categories: the
comedies, the tragedies, the histories, and the problem plays. Troilus
and Cressida, along with All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure,
were first labeled "the problem plays" in 1896 by Frederick
Boas because they are neither purely tragic nor comic. Written in the
four-year period between Hamlet and Othello, they're what we now call
black comedies: satires without clear heroes, distinguished by often-nasty
wit and ambiguous resolutions. Rarely produced until the 20th century,
the three haven't spun off as many imitators as Shakespeare's other
Of the three -- indeed, of all of Shakespeare's plays -- Troilus is
considered the most troubling. Chronicling a moment halfway through
the Trojan War, the play takes aim at several sacred cows, namely the
glory of war, slavish dedication to honor, and the sanctity of true
love. It was performed only sporadically until 1734, and then sat dormant
for 165 years. After World War I, Troilus began to find an audience;
productions increased during the Vietnam War, when its antiwar message
How could the Shotgun Players resist Troilus? The first time artistic
director Patrick Dooley read the play, he totted up the characters and
decided his company lacked the actors and resources to produce it. The
second time, he'd already knocked off Iphigenia in Aulis and There Will
Be No Trojan War -- what more perfect play to round out his Trojan War
trilogy? Troilus gives codirectors Dooley and Joanie McBrien the chance
to visit many of the same themes, such as the pointlessness of war and
the status of women.
Troilus begins seven years into the Trojan War. Both sides are heartily
sick of the conflict. Outside the besieged city, the soldiers are restive,
inspired in their muted revolt by the mighty Achilles, who refuses to
leave his tent and the love of Patroclus. Inside the city, the sons
of King Priam are arguing over whether it's worth holding onto Helen.
The most heartfelt argument for continuing the war comes from young
Troilus. Although he too is tired, he still has adolescent notions of
glory. "Nay," he says, "if we talk of reason, let's shut
our gates and sleep: manhood and honor should have hare-hearts, would
they but fat their thoughts with this cramm'd reason: reason and respect
make livers pale and lustihood deject." Not surprisingly, Troilus
also has unrealistic expectations of romance, which will be challenged
when he falls in love with Cressida, the daughter of the traitor Calchas.
Troilus gets Cressida's uncle Pandarus to arrange a meeting with the
maiden, (hence our word "panderer"), and the youngsters have
a wild night of passion, complete with promises of devotion and fidelity.
When dawn breaks, word comes that Cressida is being exchanged for Antenor,
a Trojan prisoner of war. The Greek commander Diomedes (a scowling,
dangerous Dooley) has been sent to bring Cressida to Calchas in the
Greek camp. Troilus and Cressida have a teary farewell, and Cressida
heads off with Diomedes. Quickly surrounded by lecherous Greek generals,
she throws in her lot with Diomedes. Troilus has secretly witnessed
this betrayal, upon which he swears that a) women suck and b) he's going
to open a serious can of whup-ass on Diomedes, first chance.
Meanwhile, older brother Hector has gone into the Greek camp hoping
to pick a fight with Achilles. But the Greek generals want to teach
Achilles a lesson, so they arrange for the lumbering Ajax to take Hector's
challenge. It turns out that Ajax and Hector are cousins, so after a
few halfhearted swings, they embrace and there is feasting all about.
Hector goes home to Troy unsatisfied, and the next day makes a point
of knocking off Patroclus, which rouses Achilles from his pacifism.
Because of these provocations, the combatants regain their spirit, and
the war again shifts into high gear. The play ends jaggedly, with warriors
running back and forth and sickly Pandarus wishing his diseases on the
Most of the humor in this play is mined by Reid Davis and Clive Worsley;
the two redefine the word "ooze" in their portrayals of competing
grotesques Pandarus and Thersites. Davis' Pandarus looks and acts like
a stereotypical '70s porn filmmaker, with his gestures and insinuations.
The scene where he finally gets Troilus and Cressida into the same room
is especially funny. Worsley, amazingly, here performs Shakespeare for
the first time. Scuttling, crawling, capering, but the moment that sticks
with me is the one where he spanks himself offstage. In every way, his
Thersites is the quintessential Shakespearean fool. Besides Cassandra
(Kimberly Wilday, the only actor to reprise her role from Trojan War),
he's the only character who really understands what's going on, but
unlike the doomed prophet in her straitjacket-like garb, he does not
take sides, preferring to heckle everyone equally.
Many of the actors are working with Shotgun for the first time, and
the infusion of new faces is refreshing. Rica Anderson plays a quite
slutty Helen, Alan Quismorio is the scampering mimic Patroclus, and
John Thomas plays an imposing Aeneas. Tyler Fazakerley's Troilus looks
like every boy at my high school, with his hands stuffed in the pockets
of the leather jacket he wears over Clash-video camo pants. He sounds
like those boys too, with his earnest snap judgments. Stephen Bass makes
his Shotgun debut in the dual roles of Ajax and Paris; he's strongest
as the gorilla-like Ajax, in a portrayal far more sympathetic than in
Trojan War; this Ajax is wound up by the Greek generals for their own
entertainment. I'm not sure if this is Mark Swetz's first time with
Shotgun, but the transition his Achilles makes from laid-back and amused
to viciously bloodthirsty is astonishing, aided in part by his excellent
voice. David Mayer gives a muscular performance as Hector, more butch
and less statesmanlike than Malcolm Brownson's in Trojan War; Mayer
manages to deliver lines like "There is no lady of softer bowels,
more spongy to suck in the sense of fear ... [than] Hector is,"
without seeming soft or spongy.
Another Shotgun newcomer, Frieda Naphsica de Lackner, tackles one of
the play's crucial ideas: the nature of Cressida. As written, Cressida
could be a whore -- the minute she enters the Greek camp, everyone's
kissing her. Many of the interpretations I've read do in fact paint
her as a lewd, faithless airhead. As portrayed here, Cressida is entering
enemy territory and knows full well what awaits a young, attractive
woman. If she hooks up with Diomedes, she may have some protection.
Troilus harbors a vision of love that can't stand the light of reality;
he doesn't understand that Cressida, deprived of choices, betrays him
unwillingly. Yes, she could kill herself, but she's no Juliet, and there
is no convenient temple of Diana where she can take shelter, as do other
Shakespearean heroines stripped of their men. Cressida wants to survive
this war; why should she be another casualty of Paris' desire for Helen?
Indeed, most of the characters seem to be asking themselves the same
question. Why should we be casualties of a conflict that has raged so
long, to so little good purpose? It's the question directors McBrien
and Dooley have been asking their audience all season. A play that moldered
unseen for centuries has again found a time to which it speaks.
eastbayexpress.com | originally published: August 7, 2002
Original article on the web at