All's Unfair in Love and War in Shakespeare's 'Troilus and Cressida'

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Although new plays are what Impact Theatre is all about the rest of the year, every season the company does a Shakespeare play or another classic of the period in a high-octane staging by artistic director Melissa Hillman. This time it's Troilus and Cressida, which isn't one of William Shakespeare's more popular works. (In fact, this was the second-to-last of his plays that I'd never seen on stage, so if someone would only do Henry VIII I'd be all caught up.)

Troilus is set during the Trojan War, and Troilus himself is a prince of Troy, one of the brothers of Hector and Paris. It's a strange coincidence that Impact is doing this play at the same time that the San Francisco Olympians Festival is presenting 36 new plays about the Trojan War by local writers, including myself. But the tale of Troilus and Cressida isn't actually from ancient Greek myth at all but from 12th century French poetry.

No sooner do the two titular Trojan youngsters fall in love and consummate their mutual attraction (courtesy of Cressida's creepy uncle Pandarus, who takes an unseemly interest in their no-pants dance) than Cressida is bartered away to the Greek army in exchange for a male Trojan hostage. Having hand-delivered Cressida to the enemy himself, Troilus obsesses over whether she'll remain "faithful" to him in the Achaean camp. But this romance, such as it is, constitutes a surprisingly small amount of stage time. Most of the play is devoted to macho posturing, both between the warring sides and among the Greek soldiers, who come off as a sinister bunch.


Carl Holvick-Thomas and Myrmidon ninjas in Troilus and Cressida

At a certain point Shakespeare seems to lose interest in the story of the young lovers entirely and doesn't give them any real conclusion. Cressida more or less disappears from the play, and Troilus becomes just another pissed-off soldier. The final act shifts the focus to the conflict between Hector and Achilles, a familiar tale from The Iliad. But Achilles comes off as much more scummy in Shakespeare's version than Homer's, and even more so in the Impact production, which involves ninjas.

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Hillman's modern-dress staging does a good job of humanizing the characters, particularly in the thorny matter of Cressida's perceived purity. Company regular Sarah Coykendall (who also serves as the production's "blood captain") feelingly portrays Cressida's constant second-guessing of herself, making the lovers' foot-shuffling courtship feel painfully awkward in a very true-to-life way. Eric Kerr's Troilus is anxious and hotheaded, and ShawnJ West's wry Pandarus is less leeringly bawdy than amused at these crazy kids and all their beating around the bush.

The black-box stage is left bare, Anne Kendall's scenery consisting of only rough white paint and some war-related graffiti. Franzesca Mayer dresses the soldiers in two different palettes of camouflage fatigues, with elegantly simple dresses for the women. Colin Trevor fills the battlefield with sounds of gunfire, and Jax Steager's stark lighting gives the impression of bare and unforgiving terrain.


Carl Holvick-Thomas and Nick Trengove in Troilus and Cressida

Dave Maier's fight choreography is appropriately brutal, using sparring practice to liven up a debate about whether or not to give Helen back to Greece. Carl Holvick-Thomas plays Hector as a forthright, no-nonsense fighter with bouncy footwork like a boxer, and Rogelio Landaverde plays his brother Paris with an unnerving blank stare.

It's a huge cast for Impact's tiny pizzeria-basement space, with 16 people, some in very brief roles (such as Akemi Okamura's fretful Cassandra and Julie Kuwabara's kittenish Helen). Among the standouts is Lauren Spencer, whose Ulysses is a savvy schemer but also a consummate soldier, where her comrades-in-arms are a more raucous bunch. Michael Uy Kelly's Ajax is a pricelessly laconic meathead, and Miyaka Cochrane's disheveled Thersites hurls insults with the madcap impunity of your standard Shakespearean fool, only more mean-spirited than usual.

Nick Trengove is smarmily preening as Achilles, the great warrior waiting in vain for his commander to beg him to fight, and Andrew Chung is laid-back as his bosom body Patroclus, with a sarcastic smirk. Jonathon Brooks' Agamemnon gets a lot of mileage out of an incredulous glare, but seems too callow to be a commanding officer, and Sean Mirkovich seems like a snarling adolescent as Diomedes, Cressida's new protector.


Lauren Spencer and Rogelio Landaverde in Troilus and Cressida

Hillman makes some judicious cuts to the text, eliminating some characters entirely. (Sorry, Menelaus! Too bad for you, Priam!) One thing she cuts is the play's not-terribly-satisfying ending, making the play seem like it just trails off into nowhere. Instead, there's a cursory sort of silent tableau focusing on Antenor, the guy for whom Cressida got traded, who's not even a speaking role in Shakespeare's play.

In fact, Hillman devotes a surprisingly large part of the production to trying to make Antenor happen. In this version, he's a sullen teenager played by Hillman's son Jonah McClellan -- and to heighten the family connection, she makes Antenor into the son of Aeneas, played mildly by her husband, Jon Nagel. The kid recites the play's prologue as a cell-phone selfie video (film by Mike Delaney and Edwin Gonzalez) and keeps popping up as a silent symbol of the senselessness of war. In fact, the poster and program art for the show is a close-up of Antenor's face with a black eye and a bloody nose. Whatever personal significance this choice may or may not have, it doesn't come across to the viewer. It's just an added distraction in a story whose many plot threads are already hard to untangle.

Troilus and Cressida runs through December 15, 2013 at La Val's Subterranean in Berkeley. For tickets and information visit impacttheatre.com.

All photos by Cheshire Isaacs.