Through August 14, free, 8:00
For the third time in the fifty-six-year history of Shakespeare in the Park, the Public Theater is taking on the seldom-performed, less-than-popular Troilus and Cressida at the Delacorte. One of William Shakespeare’s so-called problem plays, the work has fairly obvious issues, including convoluted story lines, subplots that never get resolved or have bleak conclusions, and a narrative that uneasily shifts between comedy, tragedy, history, and romance. In 1965, Public Theater founder Joseph Papp directed a production starring Richard Jordan as Troilus, Flora Elkins as Cressida, and James Earl Jones as Ajax, and thirty years later Mark Wing-Davey helmed a version with Neal Huff as Troilus, Stephen Spinella as Pandarus and Calchas, Elizabeth Marvel as Cressida, Catherine Kellner as Cassandra, and Tim Blake Nelson as Thersites. Shakespeare director extraordinaire Daniel Sullivan is firmly in charge of this latest adaptation, set in modern times, complete with contemporary military weapons and clothing, pounding music by Dan Moses Schreier, and blazing strobe lights by Robert Wierzel. David Zinn’s stark red set features a movable wall of doors in the back, small caged rooms at either side, and detritus composed of old chairs and other items at front stage left and right. (Zinn also designed the cool costumes.) The great John Glover begins and ends the play as Pandarus, the hobbled uncle of the lovely Cressida (Ismenia Mendes), daughter of Trojan priest Calchas (Miguel Perez), who has defected to the Greeks. Pandarus serves as a kind of matchmaker for his niece, who is coveted by Troilus (Andrew Burnap), son of Priam (Perez), king of Troy. (Yes, the word “pander” came from the character Pandarus.) Troilus and Cressida seal their true love with a night of passion, but the next day she discovers that she is to be sent to the Greeks, and back to her traitorous father, in exchange for a Trojan captive, Antenor (Sanjit De Silva). At the Greek camp she is wooed by Diomedes (Zach Appelman) while trying to remain faithful to her beloved Troilus. Meanwhile, after seven years of the Trojan War, both sides seek one-on-one combat, with first dimwitted warrior Ajax (Alex Breaux) and then hunky fighter Achilles (Louis Cancelmi), who has a thing for the effeminate Patroclus (Tom Pecinka), taking on one of Troilus’s brothers, the brave and true Hector (Bill Heck). Watching over it all are the leaders of the Greeks, general Agamemnon (John Douglas Thompson), elderly mentor Nestor (Edward James Hyland), the cuckolded Menelaus, Agamemenon’s brother (Forrest Malloy), and sly, clever adviser Ulysses (Corey Stoll). Lust, jealousy, pride, and power drive the mishmash story to its violent finale.
Inspired by Chaucer’s poem “Troilus and Criseyde” and Homer’s The Iliad, Shakespeare’s play, which scholars believe was a late, unpaginated addition to the first folio, is all over the place, unable to find a central focus. But six-time Tony nominee (and one-time winner) Sullivan (The Merchant of Venice, Proof) manages to keep a precarious balance among the kitchen-sink events while also making it relevant to today’s ongoing wars in the Middle East, helped by fine performances by Burnap, who just graduated from the Yale School of Drama; Mendes (The Wayside Motor Inn, Family Furniture), who plays Cressida with a tentative, nuanced charm; Breaux (Red Speedo, Much Ado About Nothing), who brings a humorous doofiness to Ajax; Max Casella (The Lion King, Timon of Athens), who relishes his role as Thersites, the nasty fool, who declares, “The common curse of mankind, folly and ignorance”; Heck (The Merchant of Venice, Night Is a Room) as the honorable warrior Hector; and most especially Delacorte veteran, five-time Emmy nominee, and Tony winner Glover (Much Ado About Nothing, Love! Valour! Compassion!) as Pandarus, who immediately has the audience eating out of the palms of his very able hands. Troilus and Cressida might not be one of Shakespeare’s best works, but Sullivan and his excellent cast have turned it into a very welcome and entertaining production, despite its many flaws.