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.