Have you ever seen a professional production of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida?
Probably not, if you’ve spent most of your life in LA. Looking back through the LA Times database, I found reviews of Shakespeare Society productions at the little Globe Playhouse (now the Macha Theatre) in West Hollywood in 1985 and 1977. But I didn’t see either of those, and I doubt that you did.
Fortunately, on Saturday the enterprising Porters of Hellsgate opened a new Troilus and Cressida at the Whitmore Theatre in NoHo. It makes me wonder why Shakespeare’s take on the Trojan War hasn’t been seen repeatedly in the last decade. It’s about a long war with highly questionable origins — does that ring a bell?
Of course, the Porters’ venue is no bigger (and probably even smaller) than the Macha. But the Porters appear to be catching a wave that is moving on to larger companies.
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival will open its own Troilus, set in the recent American Middle Eastern wars, in March — in association with New York’s Public Theater, which might later produce it. And the Wooster Group is preparing a version that will open in London this summer, in conjunction with the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Given Wooster’s ties to REDCAT, chances are we might eventually see its Troilus in LA. But in the meantime I recommend seeing a version that isn’t as deconstructed as Wooster productions usually are.
Not that the Porters haven’t taken a few liberties with the text. One of the features of Troilus that has both perplexed and fascinated scholars and directors is its apparent shifts between conventional notions of Shakespearean tragedy and comedy — which is no more apparent than in the final two scenes. In the next-to-last scene of the traditional text, the Trojan prince Troilus mourns the awful killing of his brother Hector by the Greeks (“hope of revenge shall hide our inward woe”). Then, in the final scene, Troilus’ somewhat sleazy matchmaker Pandarus gets the final word with a speech that concludes with his plans to bequeath his venereal diseases to his heirs.
How does a director make much sense of this? Well, Porters director Charles Pasternak chooses to end the play with an epilogue that reprises the prologue. At the beginning of the play, he has Helen (Eliza Kiss) recounting the sad events of the chronicle in which she played such a pivotal role, and at the end the lines are repeated — but this time they’re spread among the four women characters, speaking more consistently in the past tense.
Also at the end, as the women speak and move among the corpses that litter the stage, their hands are literally tied — in other words, they’re now Greek prisoners. It looks like a scene from The Trojan Women. Pasternak’s interpretation reflects on the eventual outcome of the war in a way that Shakespeare didn’t, but it’s not as if he’s giving away the surprise ending — surely anyone who sees this production knows how the war ends. The ending imparts a gravitas that’s missing from Shakespeare’s ending, and it also leaves this phrase in our minds as we leave — “the chance of war”. That’s an apt farewell, for the play is a vision of war as an arena in which valiant principles are sacrificed at the altar of pragmatism — and chance.
The Porters version is absorbing throughout and becomes downright exciting in the second act, when the two sides first fraternize with each other after-hours, as if they’re all great pals, and then proceed to the next day’s slaughter. The fighting culminates in the harrowing match between Hector (Napoleon Tavale) and Achilles (Matt Calloway), who has finally been goaded into action by the death of his lover Patrocles (Frederik Hamel). All of this accords with the scheme hatched by Agamemnon (Andrew Herrera ) and Ulysses (Thomas Bigley), who had earlier tried to rouse Achilles’ ambitions by suggesting that the crude Ajax (Dylan Vigus) would have to tackle Hector himself.
Meanwhile, Pasternak depicts Troilus (Alex Parker) as a callow young idealist. His lover Cressida (Taylor Fisher) comes off as somewhat more experienced and expedient.
The set primarily leaves room for the fighting, but Jessica Pasternak’s costumes add some color in the feminine outfit for the cynical slave Thersites (Gus Krieger) and the gaudier aspects of the attire worn by Pandarus (Jacques Freydont). While Kate O’Toole is a strong Cassandra, her curly hairdo is too pert. Nicholas Neidorf’s soundscape helps re-inforce the director’s decision to emphasize the bleakness.
A couple actors simply look too young for their roles. They probably wouldn’t have been cast in a production above the 99-seat level, which is another reason — in addition to the power and currency of the play itself — why I want to see one of our larger, wage-paying classics companies tackle this play soon. A Noise Within? Theatricum Botanicum? Independent Shakespeare? Shakespeare Center? Why haven’t any of you touched Troilus?
Troilus and Cressida, Whitmore Theatre, 11006 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Closes Feb. 19. 818-325-2055. www.PortersOfHellsgate.com.
***All Troilus and Cressida production photos by Rob Cunliffe
I spent most of Sunday in Costa Mesa, where the Segerstrom Center for the Arts is presenting the Off Center Festival, which feels almost like a response to last summer’s Radar L.A. festival.
It’s a two-weekend event — which isn’t nearly as big as Radar L.A., but the two festivals share a programmer in Mark Russell, the New York Public Theater associate artistic director who is listed as “festival programming consultant” in Costa Mesa and who was one member of the trio who curated Radar L.A.
The festivals also share a couple productions — Moving Arts’ Car Plays during both weekends and The Word Begins next weekend.
My main interest yesterday was in seeing the transplant of Car Plays from LA to Orange County — which, one could argue, is even more car-oriented than LA. Not surprisingly, Car Plays — in which pairs of audience members enter cars along with 1 to 3 actors in a series of quick, short plays that take place in a row of parked cars — is one of the best ways to get extremely close to actors as they work, short of being one of them yourself. And it’s a great way to evoke all the drama that can take place inside parked cars.
Three parallel rows of cars are parked on the plaza between the original Segerstrom Hall and the newer Segerstrom Concert Hall. I was assigned the “Road” row and saw five little plays in five cars. I don’t recall seeing any of them in my prior two experiences of the Car Plays in LA.
A light, intermittent rainfall on Sunday added at atmospheric element that I had never experienced at Car Plays. The car windows steamed up, which was especially appropriate for the two steamier plays I saw — JJ Strong’s The Love of Make-Believe and EM Lewis’ Bohemian, Like You. In the former, the maid of honor and the bride’s brother have momentary fun with each other on the way home from the wedding. In the latter, a couple attempts to engage a depressed friend in more ways than one.
The rain also added an extra poignancy to Craig Wright’s Easy Listening, in which a lone man — in between phone calls to his wife — attempts to pick out the best music to possibly commit suicide by. And, for that matter, in Herman Poppe’s Waiting for the Tow, in which a couple at odds with each other have a lot of time to explore why.
Then there is Will Hackner’s Warriors, in which two deeply PTSD-plagued U.S. vets are waiting for a suicide car bombing to begin. While I was in the back seat for this one, an emphatic slamming of the car door caused the casing of the car’s dome light to fall on what was apparently the bomb, which included a screen that was counting down the seconds. The unexpected blow temporarily wiped the countdown numbers off the screen, but the show must go on, especially in such close quarters, and the actors didn’t seem to notice.
All this action within Car Plays stood in start contrast to Chautauqua!, another festival event, which I saw earlier in the day. This production from the New York-based National Theater of the United States of America evoked the old Chautauqua tent meetings and also attempted to depict how they were superseded by crasser forms of popular culture. It included some engaging acts and a real surprise near the end, but it also included a few moments that seemed so amateurish or slow-paced — perhaps intentionally so — that they bogged down the production. Perhaps this was part of an effort to replicate what were surely some slow moments in the original Chautauquas, but I got tired of this Chautauqua! before it ended.
I concluded the day with a visit to South Coast Repertory next door to see the latest rendition of Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog. Seret Scott’s staging, with Larry Bates as Booth and Curtis McClarin as Lincoln, is strong enough to serve as an excellent introduction to the play. But as someone who has seen three other productions, I didn’t find that this one added much to my understanding of this provocative play.
Off Center Festival, Segerstrom Center for the Arts (formerly Orange County Performing Arts Center), Costa Mesa. Continues next weekend. 714-556-2787. www.scfta.org.
Topdog/Underdog, South Coast Repertory Argyros Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tues-Sun, 7:45 pm. Sat-Sun matinees, 2 pm. 714-798-5555. www.scr.org.
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