"All is lechery, war and lechery." That's Shakespeare's
"Troilus and Cressida" at OSF Ashland. This anthesis to the purity
of "Romeo and Juliet" is a riveting tale of love, lust, betrayal,
and treachery played out on the high tech, state of the art stage of the outdoor
Elizabethan theater in one of those uniquely Ashland productions. Set in the
last year of the Trojan War, Troilus, the youngest of King Priam's fifty sons
loves Cressida, daughter of the priest Calchas. In order to woo her, however,
he needs to use her Uncle Pandarus as a go-between. He talks to her of Troilus,
and she's secretly in love with him, but pretends indifference.
Meanwhile, in the Greek camp Ulysses, Agamemnon, and Nestor try to rally their side to unite and fight the Trojans. Achilles has lost all interest. He mocks strategy and takes to his tent with Patrocolus. It's threatening the morale of the whole army. When Aeneas offers a one on one challenge for a Greek to battle Hector, they devise a trick on Achilles. They will try to get Ajax to fight him. If he wins, fine. If not, they didn't send their best man. It may make Achilles jealous, and in the end, it does.
James J. Peck's Ajax is tremendous. He's big and dumb as a post. He struts around like a rooster and director Kenneth Albers uses him and James Newcomb's Thersites the Scavenger to inject some wild humor into the production. We first meet Ajax as he is beating Thersites. He throws him around, kicks him and slaps him as Thersites hurls insults and ends up hitting himself after his insults to save Ajax the trouble. When Ajax is finally paraded out to the field he walks up and down calling his own name.
Achilles' jealousy is finally aroused when all the generals
ignore him. Ulysses tells him that things in motion catch the eye, while good
deeds past are forgotten as soon as they are done. Ajax is the new hero, and
Thersites says "I'd rather be a tick in a sheep than an ass like Achilles."
appropriate gestures with the right body parts to bring a roar of laughter from
the audience. It's these gestures, looks, and expressions that really bring
the laughs, and they're largely unique to this production.
Back in Troy, the debate is hot as to whether to simply return Helen to the Greeks and be done with it. Hector urges this while Troilus urges the Trojans to fight for Paris and Helen. When the table is turned, though, Paris is the first one to urge the giving of Cressida to the Greeks. Paris and Helen make love while Panderus sits on the bed pleading for Troilus. He notes that "If this song be love, then love will betray us all."
Pandarus finally arranges the tryst between Troilus and Cressida. When the young lovers show their youth and back off, he urges them on to sensual fulfillment. He lurks in the shadows and she blurts out her love for Troilus. Embarrassed, she starts to run off but Troilus stops her and Pandarus reassures her. When they pledge their love in passionate kisses Pandarus joins them and says "If this love be false, let all go betweens for all time be known as Panders."
Calchas has joined the Greeks, who have captured Antenor.
He urges them to trade him for his daughter, Cressida. When Diomedes goes to
take her, he trades the most noble hateful insults with Aeneas that everyone
comments on it. When they get Cressida in the Greek camp Diomedes gives her
a big kiss. They all mock her. Agamemnon looks her up and down then gives her
a passionate kiss, then they all handle her and pass her around. Troilus watches
from the balcony with Ulysses as she and Diomedes meet. She flirts, he wants
more. When she tries to stop him and he turns angrily to leave, she calls him
back and eventually yields to his advances.
Troilus is crushed and vows to kill Diomedes in the battle the next day. Pandarus
is broken and says "I'll take my ease and ... I'll bequeath you my diseases."
The final battle scene is really spectacular. Troilus and Diomedes circle each other in slow motion as the stage is bathed in blood red light. They speed up and slow down. Their swords striking each other beat the percussive rhythms. More battles alternate between slow motion and real time. Thersites gives a running narrative from the second story and the first. At times he gets between the combatants, and once even lifts each sword, passes under and looks back in satisfaction as they resume their real time battle.
A hollow voice calls "Achilles" in full digital surround sound. Patroclus' carved up, bound and bloody body is dropped on a rope from the third story and hangs there for the rest of the play. Achilles runs under him and screams. He arms and finds Hector. They battle and Hector pins him down. Instead of killing him though he lets him go. At the end of the day, Hector has disarmed. While Achilles watches from above, his Myrmidons swarm around Hector with flowing black capes like vampires and kill the unarmed hero upon whom the fate of Troy rests, in the towering climax to the Trojan War and Shakespeare's most underrated play. "Troilus and Cressida" continues outdoors on The Elizabethan stage through Oct. 6 at OSF Ashland.