If you need a treatise on why straight white men shouldn’t be allowed to run the world, try Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. It rises on occasion to heights of sublime poetry, and contains more than a few brilliantly woven passages of Shakespearean wit, but while many may respect it, most don’t like its dark vision, and almost nobody loves it. The truths it spells out about human beings — especially males, especially during wartime — are just too unpleasant to bear. It may not even have been performed in Shakespeare’s time, and revivals have not been frequent. Daniel Sullivan’s current production at the Delacorte is only the fourth in the Public Theater’s history. Nasty truths have a limited market, and you can’t expect a war play that virtually starts with the hero disdaining the two armies as “fools on both sides” to get less nasty later on.
Directors have often tried to sweeten the deal by costuming Troilus in the fancy dress of some intervening period. Tyrone Guthrie set his famous 1956 London production in a pre–World War I Mitteleuropa, all gold epaulets and Strauss waltzes. In 1961, the American director Jack Landau staged it for the (now long defunct) Shakespeare festival at Stratford, Connecticut, dressed in Civil War–era costumes, all hoop skirts and dashing young swordsmen with side whiskers. Sullivan strips away any chance of such glamorizing by dressing the play in contemporary costumes that evoke a desert war, in some country not far from where scholars locate the supposed plains of Troy. Instead of waltzes, pounding heavy-metal rock covers the scene changes; in lieu of chivalric dash, the soldiers display assault rifles, dog tags, and testosterone.
Partly, audiences have mixed feelings about Troilus and Cressida because most of its characters, whether Greeks or Trojans, have such mixed feelings about the war the two nations are fighting. It’s a war neither side really wants. The motive for it — the abduction of the Greek king Menelaus’s wife, Helen, by the Trojan prince Paris — gets mocked or condemned time and again, on both sides. Menelaus himself (Forrest Malloy) is treated as a standing joke by his own troops; Paris (Maurice Jones), whom Sullivan depicts as a bespectacled, over-assertive intellectual, seems to desire Helen less as a love object than as an excuse to display his skill at logic-chopping. And “object” is the right word: The metaphors in which the two sides debate their respective claims to Helen are mainly mercantile.
Both sides, too, apparently prefer fraternizing to battle. The evening starts with Paris’s younger brother, Troilus (Andrew Burnap), disarming himself and refusing to fight, an activity that becomes one of the play’s principal motifs. The Greek champion Achilles (Louis Cancelmi, a last-minute replacement for the injured David Harbour) would rather loll in his tent with his boyfriend, Patroclus (Tom Pecinka). Opportunistic as well as hedonistic, Achilles also hesitates to make war because he’s carrying on a clandestine courtship with the (unseen) Trojan princess Polyxena. When he finally rouses himself to fight because Patroclus has been killed, he brings the motif to an odious climax: He and his men surround and murder the Trojan crown prince, Hector (a handsome, glowing performance by Bill Heck), when he’s unarmed. (In Sullivan’s version, Achilles shoots Hector at point-blank range. So much for the glory that was Greece.)
The soldiers in this male-heavy play are largely cynical and coarse, and Sullivan’s actors, spearheaded by Cancelmi’s slouching, scruffy Achilles, find contemporary stylistic touchstones for their cynicism; the pure grunt comedy of Max Casella’s half-manic performance as the vituperative Greek foot soldier Thersites could have energized any of a thousand post-Vietnam movies. The Greeks’ senior officers may have more dignity: Edward James Hyland’s Nestor is crisp and fierce as an old West Pointer; John Douglas Thompson’s gravitas and sublime poetic skills let Agamemnon supply the reminders of soldierly nobility that, as Shakespeare surely intended, serve to condemn the surrounding crassness. Sullivan underscores the point by dressing Agamemnon’s smooth-talking adviser Ulysses, well articulated by Corey Stoll, as a blue-suited civilian diplomat.
Hector plays war by the rules; Troilus tries to do the same with love. In this play’s corrupted context, they seem out of place — throwbacks to some more idealized version of the tale, in which love and war bring out men’s innate heroism. Not here. Hector’s brute slaughter, which presages the fall of Troy itself, parallels the bitter end of the play’s peculiarly wan love story. Troilus sincerely loves Cressida (Ismenia Mendes), but she vacillates a long time before giving in, despite the urgings of her uncle Pandarus (played with sparkling pointillist comedy by John Glover).
Her excessive hesitation seems odd until the war disrupts their newly consummated love: Cressida’s father, Calchas (Miguel Perez), a Trojan turncoat, pulls strings to have her brought to the Greek camp as part of a prisoner exchange — another instance, like Helen, of women-as-merchandise. Young and vulnerable among foreigners, Cressida’s not the girl to pull a Juliet and stand by her man at all costs. Instead, we — and Troilus — have to watch her use the same vacillating tactics as before with her new lover, the Greek courier Diomedes (Zach Appelman). You can’t blame the poor creature: She doesn’t realize that the future will make her a symbol of faithless love — unlike Pandarus, who’s regularly reminded that his name will become a permanent synonym for “pimp.”
Cressida has spunk; she learns quickly from the Greeks that even she has the right to sass the cuckolded Menelaus. But if she has the inner strength to stay faithful to Troilus, she doesn’t know it’s there. Though vocally rough-edged, Mendes’s performance always rings true emotionally to the role’s welter of uncertainties, as does Burnap’s better-spoken angst as Troilus. What Pandarus intends by bringing these two together, Shakespeare never explains, probably because the old coupler’s motives are too entirely sordid. The play fades out on his disappointment; as a parting gesture, in the final couplet, he wishes his venereal diseases on the audience. You can see why I find this play virtually impossible to love. Thanks to the blunt lucidity with which Sullivan has laid out its action, and his stern emphasis on textual clarity, I’m at least beginning, reluctantly, to respect it.