Diving into disjunction, deconstructing anything and everything, and squeezing ambiguities out of certainties, The Wooster Group has always stayed theatrically steps ahead. In staging this play they seem to have taken on their ultimate challenge because Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida is already a work of deconstruction … a few centuries avant la lettre. So what’s left for The Wooster Group to do? Exuberantly, they add their own disjunctions and ambiguities to Troilus and Cressida for a stimulating take on Shakespeare’s play based on Homer’s epic about that war between the Greeks and Trojans.
The play’s set conjures not ancient Troy but a derelict American Indian camp with a shabby teepee. A video screen, continuing the set, shows smoke rising from the top of the teepee, setting up the game of competing realities, while at the same time enlarging the meaning of the action.
We’re on the Trojan side of things where proud, graceful and scraggly warriors return from battle, bare-chested, in motley Indian leather. They cross the stage one-by-one in their individual versions of Indian-like dance steps as the gross sensualist, Pandarus, announces their legendary names: Aeneas, Paris, Hektor … Pandarus, like all the Trojans, speaks with an Irish brogue. Each warrior wears a quiver that looks like it’s seen better days, with a mask at the top -- Janus faced to their own -- a head with the features of an ancient Greek sculpture, deteriorating, empty.
So much for idealized, mythic heroes. So much for the gods, too -- the wobbly, empty heads recall that of Venus, a patron god of Troy and mother of Aeneas.
On the love front, Troilus, one of King Priam’s many sons, is in love with Cressida, a match enabled by Pandarus (who's lent his name to enabling sexual match-ups). After a night of love, word comes that Cressida is to be passed over to the Greeks in a prisoner exchange -- a cruel deal managed by her own father, who’s a traitor as well, having defected to the Greeks. Nice guy. Troilus defends Cressida -- flaccidly -- she’s handed over to the other tribe, the Greeks, who speak in English accents in contrast to the Irish Trojans.
The Greeks pass Cressida around like a toy, kissing her, she looks a little staggered but adapts readily and fast ends up in bed with Diomedes, whom she’s willing enough to love, surrendering to him without much fight her love token from weak-willed Troilus.
All the characters are one way or another weak willed and prone to betrayal, with the possible exception of Hektor, but they are stirred by thoughts of glory. At a Council Meeting-Parliament Meeting--Pow Wow, the Trojans consider abandoning Helen to the Greeks in order to end the war but, in spite of an attempt at reasoning from Hektor and warnings from prophetic Cassandra, they opt in favor of keeping Helen and continuing the war which -- in any construction -- is a well-known really bad decision.
Video monitors project cuts from a movie about Eskimos, and others from a Hollywood film simultaneously with parallel action on stage, whether arguments, violence, war councils, domestic tenderness. The monitors will also switch to project what’s actually happening on the stage (or what’s almost happening -- there’s a lot of play at work in this play). Actors glance occasionally at the monitors to time their gestures for easy-going near simultaneity, linking tech and real, cute, but it’s not over-done. It’s tantalizing and profound.
The cast is superb as actors, dancers and singers, and skillful at switching from Irish to English when they switch character from Trojan to Greek. The choreography is varied and luscious in being unhurried. The costumes and set are part of a single vision: appealing, complex, tacky. The Indian dress worn by Kate Valk, The Wooster Group’s great actress, has layers and asymmetries that, like the set itself, suggests the long history of transformations of Homer’s story.
The deconstructive battering ram The Wooster Group has brought to other iconic works was less to the point for Troilus & Cressida because Shakespeare was fundamentally already there. Instead they build on the morally dour, unidealized and fragmented view Shakespeare wrote in Troilus and Cressida and underline through tech, and time and place dislocations its inherent generalizations, giving us basically what’s in the play, although it’s sometimes difficult to catch every word because of much going on at once.
Cry, Trojans is more narratively continuous than other Wooster Group productions, less staccato and less eccentrically acted. In a word, it's theatrically less radical, and easier to take (at moments of the first half, I wondered “is this easy listening Wooster Group?”). But the second half jells powerfully. Gentlest with its roughest play, The Wooster Group remains mind-bending.
Cry, Trojans plays at The Performing Garage in Manhattan's Tribeca through February 2, 2014. EXTENDED THROUGH FEBRUARY 15, 2014 For information and tickets, click on live link of title.
P.S. For another take on Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, click for Classic Stage's Age of Iron.
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