There are some things that the Public Theater — founded as the Shakespeare Workshop in 1954 and known for a long time as the New York Shakespeare Festival — can’t avoid. The occasional Troilus and Cressida is one of them. In every way, this mid-career work, probably written between Hamlet and Othello, is what Shakespeare scholars call a “problem” play. That the accuracy and authenticity of the text are still in doubt wouldn’t matter if the version we have of it were sensible, but it’s not. Bits of Chaucer, The Iliad, and medieval romance are potted together like a particularly odd bouillabaisse; with each spoonful you have no idea what you might be asked to swallow. One fishy ingredient is the romance of the title characters, youthful Trojans whose fidelity is tested when Cressida is surrendered to the Greeks in exchange for a prisoner. Another lump bubbling around in the broth is the story of the great Greek fighter Achilles, who has lost interest in combat and instead languishes in his tent with his “male varlet,” Patroclus. And then there is the Trojan War itself, featuring all the familiar big names from Helen to Hector, doing selections from their greatest hits. These three stories barely intersect, let alone meld, which is why the play doesn’t even have a genre. In the 1609 quarto it’s called a history, in the First Folio a tragedy, and in an epistle appended by a wishful publisher a “witty comedy.” They’re all right, all wrong.
What’s a Shakespeare festival to do? First, hire the director Daniel Sullivan, an expert de-muddler, to offer the best case possible. Next, hire actors who, at a minimum, can make the verse flow clean. Then, put the director and cast together to develop characterizations that ring fresh and clear. (In a large cast, I especially enjoyed Corey Stoll as a Ulysses straight from the Pentagon, Sanjit De Silva as a snarky Aeneas, Forrest Malloy as a saturnine Menelaus, and Alex Breaux as an aptly “cloddish” Ajax.) Finally, cut the text judiciously and stage it clearly (the simple, effective set is by David Zinn) to clarify if not eliminate the chaos of the scene-switching, loose threads, and multiple points of view.
But perhaps it's best not to do more than that. In his 2010 Delacorte production of The Merchant of Venice, another problem play of uncertain genre, Sullivan found ways to fold even the extreme discursiveness of its plot and style back into a coherent whole. Sensibly, he for the most part doesn’t try that here; it would never work. Rather, he invests each separate element with as much distinct flavor and contemporary resonance as possible. The courtship of Troilus and Cressida, aided by her louche uncle Pandarus, turns out to make a surprisingly apt, ditzy-sweet rom-com, at least at first; he’s shy and tongue-tied, she's sharp and self-doubting:
TROILUS: What offends you, lady?
CRESSIDA: Sir, mine own company.
TROILUS: You cannot shun Yourself.
CRESSIDA: Let me go and try.
Meanwhile, it takes just some skin and a smooch to make the relationship of Achilles and Patroclus feel both contemporary and timeless. Shakespeare clearly establishes them as lovers, but we later learn that the reason Achilles remains in his tent is that he has promised his Trojan girlfriend he won’t fight. Sullivan does not stage or slant any of this to allow easy recourse to modern categories of sexuality: We are forced to consider the meaning of the men’s love as an exigency instead of an identity. Sullivan’s treatment of warfare, in modern dress with modern arms, does much the same thing. Without comment he intensifies the play’s peculiar contrast of viciousness and comity; enemies by day, the Greeks and Trojans are tablemates by dinner. What, we may wonder now, with our hatreds so seemingly solid state, can this mean?
Making these story lines, or parts of them, vibrate with tension is quite a victory, but doing so cannot win the war of Troilus and Cressida. It is still a blur, and when Sullivan does try to unite the play by underlining a few themes and motifs, the effect borders on camp. Cressida’s servant, Alexander, becomes in this reading a fey stylist helping her try on kicky jackets while watching the news on a laptop; the hilarious (but ultimately tragic) Pandarus of John Glover is halfway to Paul Lynde. The warriors are so buff and masculine, on the other hand, that they might be models for Agamemnon & Fitch. I’m not complaining, and Bill Heck makes a terrific Hector, illuminating an idea of soldierly dignity that is not much seen these days. But in such a strongly character-based context, the sudden descent into generic violence two-thirds of the way through feels like overkill. Also like overreaching: The ceaseless report of gunfire in Central Park, as effective as it is, drags the play in yet another direction it doesn’t want to head. Terror, we have surely learned, is a least common denominator.
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Men on Boats, by Jaclyn Backhaus, is another genre enigma. To the extent that it dramatizes a real event — the ten-man Powell Expedition of 1869 that survived a harrowing trip down the Green and Colorado Rivers — it’s a history. In fact, it reads like an adventure diary. But the stylish Clubbed Thumb and Playwrights Horizons co-production (first seen last year at the Wild Project) comes across onstage as a comedy. It’s hard to say whether this is because or in spite of its gender-reversed casting; all ten men (and a few other characters) are played by women.
The effect is marvelously destabilizing both as history and theater. The stalwartness and selfishness of the adventurers — their cockiness and cluelessness — become biting satire when sent up by women. On the other hand, the deliberately corny performance style, which lends the production the air of an amateur civic pageant, prevents you from taking anything too seriously. It’s a tricky balancing act: The anachronistic dialogue (“We won the lottery with our boat. Party boat!”) and implicit gender commentary (three of the vessels are named for women, and the fourth is called the No Name) keep raising issues the dialogue does not resolve, or even address. That’s probably a good thing, because too much earnest issue-mongering would surely sink the delicate craft of the play before its 100 minutes were up.
The terrific performances, amusingly detailed but seriously inhabited, also help to keep it afloat. Somehow the actors manage to convey sarcasm without actually being sarcastic. (It’s a reaction that happens not as they speak but when their lines hit the audience.) And then, during the several interludes of heavy action — rapids and waterfalls and river turnings marvelously staged by the director Will Davis as little oratorios — the sarcasm completely evaporates. Like Powell’s men (well, some of them) emerging at last into the wonder of the Grand Canyon, the play lands in an unanticipated place of real, if fleeting, feeling.
Troilus and Cressida is at the Delacorte Theater through August 14.
Men on Boats is at Playwrights Horizons through August 21.