'Troilus and Cressida' at Pa. Shakespeare Festival: Energetic attempt to breathe life into a flawed play

DM1TROILUS01F
Brandon J. Pierce (left) and Mairin Lee are Troilus and Cressida in the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival production, through Aug. 6.

The Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival ends its 26th season with an energetic revival of Troilus and Cressida. In its traditional end-of-summer romp, the festival strives to recreate the spontaneity of Elizabethan theater by staging a play after only four days of rehearsal, scrounging set, props, and costumes from other shows.

Shakespeare’s play is an unwieldy blend of Homer’s Iliad and Chaucer’s Troilus and Cressida, a platform for lampooning the values of love and heroism. It’s a flawed work, and directors Patrick Mulcahy and Dennis Razze give the actors lots of freedom in trying to rescue this “problem play” from its cardboard characters and nihilism.

Especially in the first act, the actors move the show in a cabaret direction. You laugh at the antics of Ajax (Andrew Goebel), a blockheaded man of valor. Pandarus (Carl N. Wallnau) is in the spotlight, comical as the go-between whose very name suggests “pimp.” Later, Troilus (Brandon J. Pierce) and Cressida (Mairin Lee) are exposed as false lovers, and revered Ulysses (Greg Wood) is reduced to the role of vicious, scheming courtier.

Almost every character is an object of ridicule. Only Hector (Luigi Sottile) invites sympathy, but he’s mainly a foil for revealing the treachery of “heroic” Achilles (Justin Adams). Thersites (Susan Riley Stevens) may be the voice of Shakespeare, a limping slave who keeps popping up to cuss everyone out, like a Greek chorus gone crazy.

In Elizabethan England, Troilus and Cressida may have been performed only for the Queen, perhaps full of inside jokes only those in the monarchy understood. With the pessimism that followed World War I, there was renewed interest in the play, but it never became mainstream. It’s too troubled, with scenes that don’t climax, and two story lines that never meld.

At his best, no writer can match Shakespeare’s marriage of psychological insight and poetry. Over and over, his characters deliver lines at climactic moments that buckle your knees. But there are no such moments here. Troilus and Cressida may hold up as poetry to read, but as live theater, the orations of its burlesque, one-dimensional characters are unaffecting.

It’s interesting to compare Troilus and Cressida with the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, 300 years later. He, too, liked to examine the soft underbelly of stated beliefs and values. But Nietzsche’s “revaluation of all values” includes biting criticism of the kind of cynicism that underlies Shakespeare’s play, and Nietzsche resonates with the larger goal of “overcoming nihilism.”

The same instinct motivates this revival. Isn’t overcoming nihilism the goal of cabaret? Actors improve the play’s climax, rushing on and off stage to create a brilliant, choreographed image that unifies confusion of values with the chaos of war. But, short of rewriting the script, the show cannot escape the burdens this play imposes — suffering without meaning, ridicule for the sake of ridicule, and undramatic poetry.

Troilus and Cressida. Through Aug. 6 at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, Labuda Center, DeSales University, 2755 Station Ave., Center Valley. Tickets: $25-$75. Information: 610-282-9455, pashakespeare.org