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Troilus and Cressida

By Gadi Dechter | Posted 2/18/2004

The Chesapeake Shakespeare Company takes some eyebrow-raising liberties with the venerable Bard in this Troilus and Cressida. Stout-hearted Aeneas is a wispy neurotic, ancient Nestor a brash youth, stalwart Ulysses--a female--deploys as much wiles as wit in her bid to rouse the aggrieved Achilles to battle. And if Shakespeare's script omits a clear justification for the wicked uncle's pandering between the eponymous lovers, Stuart Goldstone's light-loafered performance leaves no secret about Pandarus' true motivation. But then, the play itself is a savage mockery of Homer's Iliad, so director Patrick Kilpatrick's impertinence only adds another layer of irony to the satirical onion. The result: a sharp and saucy production, often naughtily funny, and a testament to the intelligence and promise of the 2-year-old ensemble.

Troilus and Cressida is not often produced, perhaps because its generic ambivalence--it is neither quite comedy nor tragedy--withholds the easier pleasures of Shakespeare's more conventional plots. Fortunately for us, the play's disquieting series of anti-climaxes seems tailor-made for our ironical age, and its attack on the counterfeit heroics of war timely indeed.

The story centers on the doomed love affair between two young Trojans, Troilus and Cressida, whose union is ruptured, first by the Greek assault on Ilium, and then by the fair maiden's famous infidelity. Shakespeare sets up the familiar scenario only to skewer it, and his uncharitable take on ancient themes of nobility and honor can still shock in its unrelenting cynicism. There's no dignity in this war, whether for love or honor; the women are all whores, the warriors mere thugs, and the world hopelessly corrupt: "Lechery, lechery, still wars and lechery," as the fool, Thersites, puts it. "Nothing else holds fashion."

Despite the play's misanthropic worldview, Kilpatrick and crew unearth a trove of humor in Shakespeare's script, and they mine every innuendo for maximum effect. Tara Garwood is delightful as the foul-mouthed Thersites, and a perfect foil to her meathead master, Ajax, comically depicted by Thomas Meaney as a sort of dumbed-down Stanley Kowalski. Another standout is Scott Graham, who imbues Achilles with real gravitas, making the warrior's ignominious victory even more disturbing to watch. And thanks to James Flanagan's sensitively exuberant turn as Achilles' catamite, Patroclus, their ill-fated relationship is actually quite poignant. But the best performance is Valerie Fenton as Cressida, who negotiates her character's sudden psychological shifts--from besotted lover to wanton slut and back again--with a seductive and sassy intelligence.

Billed as "workshop" presentation, the show's production values are low, but the spare look of an empty stage is appropriate to Kilpatrick's modern reading. Happily, they didn't skimp on the fight sequences, and the well-choreographed duels provide some physical thrills to accompany Shakespeare's dazzling, if distempered, wordplay.

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