Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Love and the Perfect Soldier

April 01, 2012

Kevin Kenerly and Tala Ashe with Raffi Barsoumian and Mark Murphey behind. Photo: Jenny Graham/OSF 2012
As many contemporary critics have argued, Troilus and Cressida is perhaps the most modern of Shakespeare’s plays. Filled with nuance and very pointed questions about honor and love, the play has multiple, sometimes seemingly unrelated storylines that don't resolve in predictable ways. Troilus and Cressida has languished somewhat due to this structure until the 20th Century. Yet, while contemporary audiences are accustomed to this sort of multi-layered approach to storytelling, the play still takes some sorting out. Comedy, romance, and profound reflection on war and peace - there’s so much to do and so little time to do it in. For the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s current revival of the play, a co-production with New York’s Public Theater, director Rob Melrose was enlisted to craft a convincing and modern take on this most complex of plays.

What’s he and the OSF resident acting company have put together is certainly striking to look at and set in fertile ground. The setting is a contemporary Middle Eastern war zone, very likely Iraq, with the Trojans taking the part of the resident forces and the Greeks becoming Western, most likely American, troops. The thrust stage of the New Theater is framed with Assyrian lion statues and a metal work bridge foregrounding expansive desert and bits of crumbling concrete walls. The design team has gone for some spectacular effects with explosions, fire and showers of sparks in key moments. There is plenty of contemporary stage business as well like rampant drug use among many of the soldiers on both sides (including Thersities who has clearly developed a problem with inhalants). And while the play ends with one of Shakespeare’s biggest battle scenes, Troilus and Cressida is more about what all these soldiers and their lovers are doing in their down time while avoiding the bloody business of combat. It’s their bad behavior outside of combat, including scenes that could have come out of Scarface, that shapes the moral contours of the story.

Of course the titular lovers, star-crossed though they may be, aren’t on warring sides like Romeo and Juliet, but instead find themselves thwarted and eventually separated by the tides or war. The romantic material has its own hurdles to clear with Cressida going from uninterested to amorous to moving on to other pastures in under three hours. Not that this isn't achieved in all sorts of plays, but here it's only a fraction of the action. All of this material is intercut with the ongoing rivalries and conflicts of the warring soldiers on both sides and it is here that Shakespeare fully explores some of the major themes of the price of peace and the tragedy of not being able to achieve it. And yet in Melrose’s take on the play, despite all of its handsome good looks, you’d have to pay pretty close attention or you might miss some of these finer points prior to the concluding minutes of the show. Melrose has gone with the comedy in the story as the main point of connection with the audience and one could be forgiven for thinking the whole show was pretty much a romantic comedy leading up to the first break. Even the scenes among the Greek soldiers are mostly played for laughs until in the play's finale somebody pulls out a big sword and the situation starts getting real. This is by no means an inappropriate choice, and Melrose adds nothing to the play textually that wasn’t there to begin with, but the prior emphasis on comedy makes the final act feel unintegrated and foreign to what has come before.

There are lovely performances from Tala Ashe as Cressida who is as smart and savvy as any general. When Bernard White’s Hector finally gets his say about not sacrificing any more blood over Helen, he’s riveting to watch. Some of the performances felt crowded, such as Mark Murphey's Ulysses who has some of the most poignant material in the whole show but gets sidelined as yet another general in the wake of Elijah Alexander's overly broad and comical Ajax. Peter Macon as Achilles and Ramiz Monsef as Patroclus manage subtle and effective turns with the homosexual subtext of their own story arc. Of course how all these performances and tonal shifts resolve remains to be seen. One of the beauties of OSF is that the lengthy runs in repertory often allow pieces to settle and mature in unexpected ways. Troilus and Cressida will be onstage until November but if you don't have tickets, act soon. The run of this relative rarity is proving a popular choice in Ashland this season.


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