|Brooke Hardman (Cressida) and Maurice Emmanuel Parent (Troilus) in the ASP production of TROILUS AND CRESSIDA. (Stratton McCrady Photo)|
An old adage observes that “All’s fair in love and war," but Shakespeare clearly does not agree in his Trojan War-based play “Troilus and Cressida.”
In fact, this 1601 drama has insights about the unfair perils of both that resonate as much in modern times as in the Elizabethan age.
Not surprisingly, Shakespeare & Company founding artistic director Tina Packer has decided to frame the current Actors’ Shakespeare Project revival of “Troilus and Cressida” at the Modern Theatre at Suffolk University with an opening and closing image of soldiers and banner that calls to mind the famous 1945 photograph “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima.”
The presence of black actors in the soldier and banner grouping -- Maurice Emmanuel Parent as Troilus, De Lon Grant as Achilles and Johnnie McQuarley as Ajax - could be calling to mind the hundreds of African American soldiers who fought at Iwo Jima. By having both Greeks and Trojans in this framing image, director Packer may be reinforcing the universal implications of Shakespeare’s observations.
After all, both sides of this ancient conflict are portrayed here as equally exhausted -- both physically and psychologically -- by many years of war with little chance of a peaceful resolution.
Contemporary audiences are likely to see the clear similarities with the Afghanistan war and many other conflicts. Packer deserves great credit for keeping the play's many characters on both sides distinct and the love entanglements equally vivid.
If the title characters seem to be the focus, the real center of this often under-esteemed play turns out to be how the fortunes of individuals and countries can become entangled in conflicts that spiral out of control.
Trojan prince Troilus and Trojan woman Cressida can be giddy lovers one moment a la Romeo and Juliet, but the cross purposes of Greeks and fellow Trojans ,of course, change all that.
Packer keeps the characters’ diverse positions immediate and telling -- the fairness of Troilus’ bravest brother Hector, the egotism of pre-eminent Greek warrior Achilles, the opportunism of Cressida’s uncle Pandarus and the treason of her priest father Calchas, the survivalist instincts of Greek malcontent Thersites, the macho muscularity of Hector’s Greece defending cousin Ajax and the cunning diplomacy of Greek commander Ulysses.
While the victory of the Greeks is well-known, Shakespeare stops his play shortly after the death of Hector, arguably the play’s tragic figure -- whose over-reaching trust in fairness proves his downfall.
Violence designer Ted Hewlett brings a striking choreographic effect to the surrounding and killing of Hector by Achilles’ Myrmidon forces. Ross MacDonald brings understated eloquence to his statesman-like Hector. De Lon Grant combines Achilles’ arrogance toward his fellow Greeks and tenderness with his lover Patroclus, played with striking thoughtfulness by Danny Bryck.
Parent as Troilus and Brooke Hardman as Cressida do fairly well as the title lovers, whom Shakespeare probably intended to be seen as supporting characters in the scheme of things. Parent does catch Troilus’ idealism, though Hardman is more expressive evoking Cressida’s evolving feelings as she becomes the pawn of an exchange between the two sides. McQuarley may seem to overplay Ajax’s self-importance as a warrior, but his portrayal does catch his character’s affection for Hector even as they spar.
Other standouts include Robert Walsh’s slick yet likeable Pandarus, Bobbie Steinbach’s fragile Trojan King Priam, Craig Mather’s crafty Ulysses and Michael Forden Walker’s self-preserving Thersites (think of Bertolt Brecht characters that Shakespeare pre-figures).
Credit Kara Midlam for costumes that catch the World War II military uniforms without losing sight of earlier and later conflicts. This Ulysses could easily be mistaken for a Donald Rumsfeld.
Packer and ASP have many of the actors in their talented cast doubling as Greeks and Trojans-notably McQuarley as a subdued Paris, Walsh as a fierce Agamemnon and Steinbach as a tenacious veteran Greek commander Nestor.
The result is a kind of metaphor of performance that parallels Shakespeare’s uncompromising attention to both the Greeks and the Trojans. “Troilus and Cressida” may not be as soaringly romantic as “Romeo and Juliet” or historically majestic as “Anthony and Cleopatra,” but the revival at the Modern Theatre makes its reflections about passion and power catch fire.
Troilus and Cressida, Actors’ Shakespeare Project, Modern Theatre at Suffolk University, through May 20. actorsshakespeareproject.or 617-776-2200.