Be careful venturing into Central Park at night during the next few weeks. The overall crime rate is still low, but don't be surprised if a war is going on, and a Trojan Horse appears suddenly and blocks the bridle path. The hallowed outdoor stage of the Delacorte Theater will be home to ancient Greeks uniformed in camouflage fatigues, sporting crew cuts and running about to the booming sounds of heavy artillery and overhead choppers.
Never has Zabar's seemed so close to Fallujah. This is the summer of Black Hawk Down on the Great Lawn. Welcome to Shakespeare in the Park featuring a cast of characters more ancient than Elizabethan times. Achilles, Ajax, Hector and Paris might be found playing Frisbee at the Pinetum; Helen's face, on this occasion, launching the bats of 1,000 excitable softball players.
Daniel Sullivan's superb, souped-up production of Troilus and Cressida is worth all these nightly distractions and symbolic costuming and scenic design. There is not a toga or Roman column in sight. With all that lush Central Park greenery as background, this Trojan War could be fought with night vision goggles.
While essentially a love story, Troilus and Cressida is also regarded as one of Shakespeare's comedies. And funny it is, with the fourth wall shattered by Max Casella's foulmouthed Thersites, a comic foil that would make a regiment of Falstaffs envious, and John Glover's obsequious Pandarus, who despite a diseased body and dragging leg, manages to glide across the stage making snappy commentary all the while leering like the lecherous uncle that he is.
Soon into the first act, however, the play pivots quickly into a cautionary tale about the mind games and dirty business of war. War is hell, for sure, but it is even worse than that. Everything human is surrendered; sacrifice and loss is expected of all. Only the brutes survive.
Naturally such a story was suitable for Greek tragedy, even in the hands of an Elizabethan wordsmith. Yet, despite the well-paced levity, Shakespeare wasn't looking to transform the Trojan War into Blazing Saddles. On the contrary, there is great tragedy in the Bard's often confounding take on the Trojan War. And tragedy in the puzzling nature of the play itself. So many paradoxes are at work in Troilus and Cressida; the audience is left wondering what to feel at the final curtain--and the Trojan War isn't even over! No wonder it is regarded as one of Shakespeare's problem plays.
But it is an entertaining one in Sullivan's hands, and he puts the two lovers for whom the play is titled, and the two armies of warring Greeks, through some rigorous paces. Set pieces fly open as soldiers firing semi-automatic weapons sprint across the stage as if training for the New York Marathon.
Even the few scenes of Troilus and Cressida, tragic victims not of forbidden love but of the kind thwarted by war, has a physicality that even fully clothed, deserves a PG Rating. Andrew Burnap, who plays Troilus, is a young actor to watch, and his stage presence--and transformation from shell-shocked lover to seasoned warrior--makes it easy to do so.
The play, which takes place seven years into the Trojan War when the reasons for its fighting--Helen running away from Menelaus in Sparta to be with Paris in Troy--no longer seems worth all that trouble, is intended to serve as a metaphor for America's post-9/11 adventures in similarly faraway lands. This is Shakespeare for the war weary, a prophetic statement about men doing stupid things for all the wrong reasons. Not even Cassandra can warn them off.
Meanwhile, the always wily Ulysses, here played by the versatile Corey Stoll not as a general but as a Wall Street corporate lawyer, has his way in manipulating these honor-bound men who are far too willing to answer the call of duty, and too rapt in glory to know when they are being played.
The show runs through August 14.