Used Trojans

The Wig That Launched 1,000 Ships: Camilla Little squeaks out Helen in Troilus and Cressida.

Troilus and Cressida
Peter Peter Pumpkin Theater

WHENEVER I SEE Romeo and Juliet, I fantasize about what would have happened if they hadn't died. They were teenagers. They didn't really know each other and probably didn't know themselves too well, either. Naturally, they would have broken up, or wanted to. Get real.

Watching that play, half of me wants to see their lives continue, see them confront the sour side of a relationship, watch with sadistic relish as their infatuation devolves into a workaday postscript. The other half wants to fly away with them on a magic carpet to the land of ideal love, where ice cream cones and sugar orchids sprout from singing trees. Shakespeare knew damn well what he was doing.

By contrast, Troilus and Cressida presents a wizened, though not necessarily wiser, picture of romance. This is Shakespeare on a bad day, as if he was hungover from heartbreak, regurgitating undigested chunks of misanthropy, dirty dancing with that ageless slut, cynicism. The language itself feels uninspired--by Shakespeare's standards--and the play was never produced in the writer's lifetime. One wheezy scholar wrote in 1923, "In writing it Shakespeare was serving primarily some purpose of his own, and...he deliberately chose to sacrifice the applause of the moment to the more enlightened judgment of posterity." A more elegant explanation is that Shakespeare wasn't all that jazzed on the piece and left it well enough alone.

Peter Peter Pumpkin Theater deserves credit for choosing such a strange, difficult play: I mean, somebody's got to do it, right? As smart as this troupe is, I doubt they expect much of a turnout--especially considering the yummy Christmas comfort food on offer at other theaters. This is about as un-Christmasy as it gets.

Troilus and Cressida is a sneeringly irreverent look at the Trojan War, focusing on a brief moment when, years into the conflict, both the Greeks and the Trojans are dog-tired, a little bored, and unsure of why they're still fighting. Achilles is a swaggering, lazy gay boy more interested in lolling in the tent with his boyfriend Patroclus than fighting. Amid the malaise, two doomed young lovers, Troilus and Cressida, get down to business for one hot night, before Cressida is traded to the Greek camp where she'll have to let everyone from Agamemnon to Ulysses get a smooch.

In this production, the Greek army guys--Menelaus, Nestor, et al.--are a Hogan's Heroes-inspired corps of impotent dopes and bumblers. When this clique huddles in the tent to discuss strategy, they scarf doughnuts while Menelaus (Ryan Jensen), Helen's abandoned husband (wearing a "cuckold" sign on his back and a single horn on his helmet) fumbles with a slide show of pie charts and bar graphs. Ajax (David Silvester) acts like a brain-damaged pro wrestler and prepares to fight by making a claw of one hand, grasping it by the wrist, and goose-stepping in a trance, claw outstretched like a periscope.

The women fare no better. Helen (Camilla Little) is an airhead Vegas showgirl with a helium voice, who holds up a sign that reads, "It's all about me!" when Ajax and Hector meet to fight. And when we first see Cressida (Sarah Phemister), she's sitting high on a scaffold with a girlfriend, smoking a big fatty. Even the poor Cassandra, with her straitjacket and apocalyptic visions, seems laughable here.

P3T makes the most of ominous drums and dramatic lighting; everyone's face is shrouded in shadow, and, at times, actors cast four shadows at once. And, regrettably, some of these shadows deliver stronger performances. For her part, Phemister as Cressida is, once again, captivating and comfortable with Shakespearean English. Mark Abel Garcia is funny and charming as a swishy uncle Pandarus, though he doesn't make the leap to tragedy as stylishly. Rebecca Myers is impressive as the crazy wise man, Thersites (though she often speaks too fast for our sluggish 20th-century ears).

Yet these are the exceptions; the cast, in whole, is damagingly uneven. It's as if director John Ursu chose the piece not because he wanted to give audiences an excellent rendition of obscure Shakespeare, but because he dug the text. Clever contemporary details give some much-needed juice to this three-hour play, but, ultimately, most of the cast doesn't seem ready for Shakespeare. As one local director recently observed, simply liking a play is not necessarily reason enough to do it.

Still, the show is memorable for providing us the unease of watching Shakespeare get mean, a rare, unsettling event, and one appealingly attuned to a contemporary sensibility. Critic Jan Kott calls Cressida a 20th-century gal, an embittered cynic. If so, Romeo and Juliet are '60s kids (think of Zefferelli's syrupy serenade), all idealism and martyrdom, and Troilus and Cressida are of the '80s--no, make that the '90s--when former heroes are exposed as fools and scoundrels, when people see plainly that they've strayed from the path of righteousness, yet continue out of inertia and exhaustion.

And we are a '90s audience, laughing at these jokers because we know exactly how it feels.

Troilus and Cressida runs through December 28 at the Hennepin Center for the Arts Little Theater; call 649-4687.

 
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