Thursday, August 11, 2016




The characters in Shakespeare’s Troilus & Cressida behave very strangely.

Shakespeare's play is based on the fictional story of Troilus and Cressida, set during the seventh year of the Trojan War. But the story was written long after Homer wrote the Iliad (and long before Shakespeare adapted the story for his play). Homer's tale describes the war between Greece and Troy over the abduction and seduction of the Grecian Helen, Menelaus’ wife, by the Trojan, Paris.

Cressida, a Trojan, stayed behind when her father defected to Greece. She falls in love with Troilus in Troy, assisted by the efforts of her Uncle Pandarus (whose name, he says himself, will become the word for pandering). But Cressida’s father convinces the Greeks to bring her to the Grecian camp, by trading her for an important Trojan captured by Greece.

Ismenia Mendes as Cressida, Andrew Burnap as Troilus, and John Glover as Pandarus
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

Courtesy of The Public Theater

The play contains humor, farce, love, lust, practical and ethical debates, and tragedy, all together, and is not easy reading.

The director, Daniel Sullivan, and the cast of the new Shakespeare in the Park production, do a brilliant job of making sense of the moment-to-moment action of the play, finding a way, often through physicality, of justifying, finding meaning, and interpreting the most perplexing passages in the script.

But that alone does not explain the characters’ behavior.

Commentators have suggested that the play, in part, is a comment (or parody or satire) on political events contemporary to Shakespeare. Perhaps Shakespeare was inspired by “MacBird!”, the sixties commentary on the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination structured on Macbeth, to create a commentary (with crude humor and potentially potent political satire) on his own contemporary politics, based on the Homeric legends (salted with an extra romance).

Something like that might help explain the strange behavior of the characters (and the minor mystery that the play seems never to have actually been performed publicly during Shakespeare’s life despite at least one claim that the play was to be produced).

Sullivan stages the play with minimal sets and costumes, and suggests some more or less modern war. Indeed much of the fighting is with guns. It is costumed in mostly drab colors, also more or less modern, and certainly not ancient Greek. For the most part, I suspect that this modern staging and acting was critical to help make the play understandable for a modern audience.

Zach Appelman as Diomedes and Sanjit De Silva as Aeneus (center), and the company
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Courtesy of The Public Theater

Two caveats, however. It seems to me, that in any play about the Trojan war, one necessary element is that Helen be so beautiful, so well dressed, and have such great hair (“hair” is important in the text) that there is no question about why her abduction “launch’d above a thousand ships” and sparked such a long and costly war.

Also, a commentator in one review noted that at one performance, when guns are shot in the general direction of the audience, someone screamed in terror. With movie-audience mass-shootings raw in our memory, it is not comforting to have a gang of men suddenly emerge from behind a barricade and start shooting at you. (Hopefully, it is in fact safe.  But I did actually know someone, a young and rising actor, who accidently killed himself with a gun he thought was a safe prop.)

The remainder of this article contains some possible spoilers, although in such a problematic play, they might actually be “enhancers” rather than spoilers.

The greatest puzzle in the play for me, which makes it hard to understand, is the behavior of the combatants.

Sometimes, they are strangely casual about fighting, as if they are playing a game: friendly competitors, not people trying to destroy each other’s army. The Grecian leaders invite the Trojan leaders to dinner.  They verbally bait each other, but no-one is hurt. It is a truly mysterious temporary truce.  The next day they will go back to killing.

Then Hector spares the lives of soldiers he has bested – and lets them go back to trying to kill him.

More interestingly, major decisions of war and policy are debated… but much depends on personality and whim and secret agendas.

Troilus strongly opposes returning Helen to the Greeks, even though it means continued war, but lets his own lover Cressida be sent to the Greeks with some grousing, but no real attempt to prevent her leaving.

He does suggest he will sneak into the Greek Camp at night to see her.  (In the middle of a war???)

And there’s more...

Much of the play is funny. It seems to me, perhaps, if the point of the play is the illogical, whimsical way the war (or any war) is conducted, then there might be a way to also present much of the warriors’ behavior satirically, as actually funny jokes.


This is a rare opportunity to see a strong, clear production of a play that is seldom staged, yet deals with the human issues -- some profound, some petty -- that can change the course of civilization. 

To see this play requires quick and courageous action. (It takes courage to wait in heat or rain for tickets, not even knowing if the weather will permit an evening show.) After an injury forcing a cast change, the play just had its “official” opening, and it closes in a few days (Aug 14) with some bad weather planned between now and then.

Tickets are free, by standing in line early, or by lottery. Reserved seat admissions may also be possible by means of contributions to the Public Theater.


Zach Appelman - Diomedes, 
Tala Ashe - Helen, Andromache, 
Alex Breaux - Ajax, 
Andrew Burnap - Troilus,
Louis Cancelmi - Achilles, 
Max Casella - Thersites, 
Sanjit De Silva - Aeneas, 
John Glover - Pandarus, 
Bill Heck - Hector,
Edward James Hyland - Nestor, 
Maurice Jones - Paris,
Ismenia Mendes - Cressida, 
Forrest Malloy - Menelaus, 
Nneka Okafor - Cassandra, 
Tom Pecinka - Patroclus, 
Miguel Perez - Priam, Calchas, 
Corey Stoll - Ulysses and 
John Douglas Thompson - Agamemnon.




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