It takes nerve to take on Shakespeare’s recalcitrant and probably untamable “Troilus and Cressida,” but the East Bay’s nerviest theater company, Shotgun Players, is giving it a go. In a production playing Saturdays and Sundays at Berkeley’s John Hinkel Park, Shotgun jabs at the wayward beast, wrestles it, gets knocked down, staggers up, leaps into the fray and all in all does a creditable job of staying in the ring until the final bell (or dull thud) that brings the match to a close.
Alas, trying to pummel viable dramatic shape into “Troilus and Cressida” is like trying to blow up a tire with too many nails in it: no matter how hard you pump, the tire goes flat. Still, there’s some sharp acting and energy in this production, as well as Shotgun’s winning verve. You could do worse than spread a blanket, sip some merlot and watch these players strut on a weekend afternoon.
The price is right, too: free.
“War and lechery confound all!” Thersites snarls, and that about sums up the drift of the play, which takes place at the same critical point in the Trojan War as Homer’s “Iliad”, when Achilles’ willful sulk is broken by Patroclus’ death, and he charges onto the field to slay Hector. But rather than an elegy to lost glory, Shakespeare’s play jeers at it, depicting heroes like Achilles and Ajax as egotists and dolts, and turning councils of war into dens of casuistry and expedience.
Romantic notions of sexual fidelity fare no better. Troilus, a son of Priam, loves defector Calchas’s daughter, Cressida, but though they’re not much older than Romeo and Juliet, Cressida’s coarse uncle, Pandarus, is no Friar Lawrence, and Cressida is no Juliet. She betrays Troilus at the first chance, and Helen is a wily wanton.
In other words, the play says men are macho poseurs and women are bawds… and says it and says it. Not that a rich dose of cynicism can’t be refreshing, and some of the play’s malice is bracing. As Thersites, Clive Worsley spits deliciously venomous epithets – “Thou crusty botch of Nature!” and “Thou damnable box of envy!” – and it’s good to be reminded that “pro patria more” may not be “dulce et decorum.” But “Troilus and Cressida” doesn’t provide a stirring central narrative – we never care much about the young lovers – nor does it put us on the side of either warring state. It ends abruptly and flatly, too, with a single tragic death, as unarmed Hector gets ignominiously cut down by Achilles’ black-masked henchmen.
War is bad, men are corrupt, love is flawed – but where’s the story?
The problems of the play aren’t Shotgun’s fault, and the company works hard to enliven the flawed narrative. Unfortunately its bare bones set of asphalt and streaky bed sheets does little to give shape to the shapeless, and in a central role Frieda Naphsica de Lackner’s Cressida is lightweight and unpersuasive. As Troilus, lean, boyish Tyler Fazakerley is better, riding on an earnest charm until the play unseats him. As Ulysses, Robert Martinez has a rich pomposity that wears thin. Reid Davis’s Pandarus is vivid, if twitchy. Rica Anderson makes a delectably witching Helen. Clive Worsley has a winning dignity as Agamemnon. Stephen Bass, David Meyer and Mark Swetz interact sturdily as Ajax, Hector and Achilles, and John Thomas makes a stately Aeneas.
Patrick Dooley and Joanie McBrien stage the play resourcefully, with simple but effective costumes by Valera Coble and lighting by the vagaries of Nature. Sound courtesy of rustling trees and overhead jets, which give both actors and audience pause.
WHAT: Troilus and Cressida
WHEN: Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. through Sept. 1.
WHERE: John Hinkel Park, Berkeley