The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 26.184 Wednesday, 14 April 2015
From: Hardy Cook <
Date: April 15, 2015 at 10:51:15 AM EDT
Subject: ‘Cry, Trojans!’: Wooster Group’s Take on ‘Troilus and Cressida’
Review: ‘Cry, Trojans!’ Is the Wooster Group’s Take on ‘Troilus and Cressida’
By Ben Brantley
April 7, 2015
There’s smoke rising from the tepee that occupies upstage-center at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. But as hard as you may look, you won’t find the fire — dramatic, emotional or intellectual — in “Cry, Trojans!,” the befuddled and befuddling work in which the mighty Wooster Group lays siege to Shakespeare’s “Troilus and Cressida.”
This being a production of an iconoclastic company that likes to occupy several dimensions at the same time, that smoke is only virtual, a rising wisp on a screen. Such is the classic stuff that the Wooster Group’s mind-bending dreams are made on. And there are plenty of the sort of witty, senses-melding touches here that have become Wooster signatures.
Staged by Elizabeth LeCompte, one of the troupe’s founders and its artistic director, this Native American-themed production features artful layering of voices artificial and real, and eye-popping costumes that might have been culled from an epochs-spanning cultural compost heap. There is also exactingly choreographed movement, often synced to replicate scenes from movies on video monitors.
But to what purpose? Since its founding in the mid-1970s, the Wooster Group has been performing acts of blessed profanation on sacred texts, including Chekhov’s “Three Sisters,” Eugene O’Neill’s “The Emperor Jones” and Racine’s “Phèdre.” As a rule, the company’s text-scrambling, anachronism-flaunting productions confuse only to clarify, and usually wind up commenting astutely not only on their source materials but also on our changing perspectives in interpreting them.
Yet “Cry, Trojans!,” which opened on Tuesday night, only piles obscurity onto a play that has baffled and divided scholars, critics and audiences for centuries. The most unclassifiable of Shakespeare’s works, probably written shortly after he completed the great existential question mark that is “Hamlet,” “Troilus and Cressida” is a tragicomic, antiheroic history play, steeped in a sticky cynicism that tars everybody and everything in it.
Seldom performed before the 20th century, this portrait of love, betrayal and hypocrisy during the Trojan War seemed well matched to the anti-militaristic mood that swept Britain and the United States during the Vietnam era. It is, after all, a play that pronounces on the legendary conflict at its center: “All the argument is a whore and a cuckold.”
Those words are spoken by the toxic Thersites, “a deformed and scurrilous Greek,” who makes Shakespeare’s other misanthropes (Timon of Athens, Jaques from “As You Like It”) look like Pollyannas. Those words are not spoken (unless I missed them, which is possible) in “Cry, Trojans!,” and Thersites himself sadly makes only a cameo appearance.
That’s because this version concentrates largely on its Trojans, and not the Greeks who invade their land to recapture one of their own, the cursedly beautiful Helen. Such lopsidedness was not always true of “Cry, Trojans!”
The show began in England as a coproduction of the Wooster Group and the Royal Shakespeare Company, with the Britons doing the Greeks (under the direction of Mark Ravenhill) and the Americans embodying their adversaries. It was staged (and widely dismissed) as a binational venture in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2012.
So now the Wooster Group, whose work is always a work in progress, has rethought the play, although conscious thought seems to have had very little to do with it. The Greeks are often missing in action. The overwhelming emphasis is on team Trojan, presented as Native Americans, whose tribal gear wittily includes backpacks that resemble ancient statuary. (Folkert de Jong and Delphine Courtillot are credited with “set elements, props, costumes.”)
I’m pretty sure there’s been at least one Wild West “Troilus” before, which makes sense if you choose to read the play (and, really, you should not) as an account of a colonialist invasion of an indigenous people. Anyway, that doesn’t seem to be an allegory that much interests the Wooster Group.
Instead, Ms. LeCompte and company seem to be searching for — and dissecting — the enduring archetypes within the love story of Shakespeare’s title characters, doomed lovers embodied here by the Wooster stalwarts Scott Shepherd and Kate Valk. These characters are not naturals, though, for the kind of magnificent implosion practiced by the troupe upon the African-American railroad porter in “Emperor Jones” and the love-sickened queen Phèdre.
Both those parts were taken on by Ms. Valk, the group’s longtime leading lady and its most brilliant exponent of acting as a disembodied chain of mechanical mannerisms. But she’s unable to make much sense of the faithless Cressida, whom she portrays as a skipping Pocahontas type, given to flatline flirtation.
It’s a single-note, if impeccably executed, performance that emphasizes what’s least interesting about Cressida. Mr. Shepherd — who dazzled as the inexhaustible narrator of “Gatz,” the Elevator Repair Service’s epic staging of “The Great Gatsby” — is even more unvarying as Troilus, whom he presents as an adenoidal, whiny adolescent.
Suzzy Roche, in a frizzy fright wig, shows up as the doom-saying Cassandra; Greg Mehrten, looking like Bloody Mary from “South Pacific,” is Cressida’s prurient uncle Pandarus; and Ari Fliakos, with a Scottish burr and a welcome light wit, is the martyred Hector. The male cast members put on masks to portray the warring Greeks. But most of the great speeches belonging to those characters have been excised.
So what are we left with? Well, mostly a single high concept that doesn’t take us anywhere beyond its own limited picturesque terms. Variations on Native American customs, accessories, war dances and tribal languages are deployed here, and are no doubt the product of the extensive research and discipline that is the Wooster Group’s hallmark.
But don’t expect much illumination on Shakespeare or indigenous American culture. The production runs a sluggish two and a half hours, but you do have the option of watching the movies projected in the video monitors on either side of the stage.
These include the psychosexual teenage weepie “Splendor in the Grass” (starring Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood) and “Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner,” a 2001 tale out of Canada based on Inuit myth. To its credit, “Cry, Trojans!” made me want to revisit “Splendor” and acquaint myself with the intriguing “Atanarjuat.” So I can say that at least I took away something from a Wooster Group production that is largely, and atypically, empty.
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