In recent years, our country entered into an expensive, protracted, possibly unwinnable war on the most feeble of pretexts—presumed weapons of mass destruction. Cold comfort though it may seem, the Trojan War began when a flighty wife absconded with her lover. That adulterous flit occasioned a deadly 10-year conflict and destroyed a great empire. Yellow hair or yellowcake—what’s the flimsier cause?
While that ancient scuffle motivated a host of Greek, Roman, and early modern plays, none of the surviving ones describe it from beginning to end. As totality is apparently important to Classic Stage Company artistic director Brian Kulick, he has combined two works that together encompass the war’s scope: Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida and The Age of Iron, a play by Shakespeare’s contemporary Thomas Heywood. The resulting patchwork limns nearly all of the conflict’s significant events, but stints on engaging theater.
Kulick opens the play in a sword-and-sandals setting, with a billowing red tent overhead and a sandy square beneath. We’re in Menelaus’ Sparta, Heywood’s territory, witnessing how the visiting Trojans strain hospitality, kidnapping Helen, their hostess. The writing here may help to explain Heywood’s obscurity: Paris’ seduction employs various clunky couplets, such as, “For let me live, bright Helen to enjoy./Or let me never back re-sail to Troy.” Perhaps Heywood should have back re-sailed to his writing desk. The action soon shifts to Troy and to Shakespeare’s wonderfully cynical portrait of the drawn-out struggle. But Kulick has cut lots of Shakespeare to make room for more Heywood, and the plight of the young lovers divided barely registers.
Kulick has hired some fine actors, though few performances register strongly and miscasting runs rampant: Craig Baldwin is a distinctly unromantic Paris, Elliot Villar an unmacho Hector. Though Brian H. Scott’s lighting conjures stark images from Mark Wendland’s set, Oana Botez-Ban’s wrongheaded costumes trouble one’s vision: She dresses the Greeks and Trojans alike and squeezes Tina Benko’s Helen into a tawdry beaded cocktail dress. Is that the outfit that launched a thousand ships?