Scholars think it’s quite possible that Shakespeare’s “Troilus and Cressida’’ was never performed during his lifetime. It’s not staged all that often nowadays, either.
Why? Well, when no less a Shakespeare authority than Yale’s Harold Bloom describes “Troilus and Cressida’’ (in “Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human’’) as “the most difficult and elitist of all his works,’’ you know you’re in for a challenge.
But Tina Packer is always up for one of those.
There are few more insightful interpreters of the canon than Packer, the founder of Lenox-based Shakespeare & Company. She has chosen to give her Actors’ Shakespeare Project production of “Troilus and Cressida’’ a rollicking, absurdist flavor, but with a bitter aftertaste.
Packer’s approach makes sense for Shakespeare’s dark, astringent take on those twin follies, love and war. “Troilus and Cressida’’ offers a decidedly nonheroic view of the Trojan War, which Homer, in the “Iliad,’’ depicted more glamorously. So when soldiers in the ASP production leap off the ground for an exultant chest-bump, or when one character warms up for battle by speed-boxing on the splayed hands of another, one doubts that the playwright, at least, is spinning in his grave.
It’s a decidedly tangled tale, though. If you’re new to Shakespeare, this is definitely not the play with which to begin. There are times when this “Troilus and Cressida’’ registers primarily as a series of heated, threatening speeches shouted by one character at another. Yet riches abound in the language, and even on a bare-bones set, with the audience grouped around the stage on four sides in the Modern Theatre, Packer deploys her gift for compelling imagery and for metaphor laden with meaning.
The play begins and ends with a tableau of men frozen in positions of combat, as if humanity is eternally at war. Which is clearly how it feels to the warriors in “Troilus and Cressida’’ as the Greek siege of Troy drags into its wearying seventh year. (There are implicit parallels to the United States’s protracted military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, a notion underscored by the fact that the ASP actors are largely attired in contemporary garb.)
Troilus, ably portrayed by Maurice Emmanuel Parent, is a prince of Troy who embarks on a torrid but ill-starred romance with a Trojan woman named Cressida (Brooke Hardman, nicely alternating passion and poignancy). Cressida’s uncle, Pandarus, helps facilitate the affair between the duo. As played by the always inventive Robert Walsh, Pandarus is a winking, leering, Runyonesque rascal in fedora and red suspenders. (I could swear Walsh vocally channeled Tom Waits at one point.)
Due to the machinations of Cressida’s father, who has gone over to the Greek side in the war, she ends up separated from Troilus and sent to the Greek camp. In need of protection from the predatory warriors, she agrees to become the lover of a Greek commander named Diomedes (Danny Bryck), a scene that is witnessed by Troilus.
Another prince of Troy, the idealistic Hector (Ross MacDonald), is urging Paris (played by the versatile Johnnie McQuarley) to return the beautiful Helen (Paige Clark) to the Spartan king from whom Paris stole her, starting all the trouble.
Meanwhile, in the Greek military camp, Agamemnon (Walsh), the commander in chief, is confronting discontent among warriors and commanders, fueled by the open disrespect being shown him by the once-mighty Achilles (De’Lon Grant), who now refuses to fight, preferring to hang out in his tent with his lover, Patroclus (Bryck).
This restiveness in the ranks prompts one of the best-known speeches in “Troilus and Cressida,’’ in which Ulysses (Craig Mathers) vehemently urges Agamemnon to reassert his authority. Ulysses maintains that “the heavens themselves, the planets and this center, observe degree, priority, and place,’’ and adds ominously: “O, when degree is shaked/ Which is the ladder to all high designs/ The enterprise is sick! . . . Take but degree away, untune that string/ And, hark, what discord follows!’’
As arguments for chain of command go, it’s hard to rebut. Eventually, Achilles rouses himself and does battle with the noble but naive Hector. It’s one-on-one at first, but then the venal Achilles enlists his gang of Myrmidons to kill Hector.
That scene is staged with harrowing force by Packer as a kind of stylized, ritualistic slaughter. There is nothing heroic or noble about the killing of Hector — nor, Packer seems to say, about war, either.