Washington -- "Troilus and Cressida" is the oddball Shakespearean play that defies labels. Part history, part romance, part comedy, part tragedy, it can either be seen as all of the above or as something else entirely -- Shakespeare's experiment in satire.
At the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, British director Bill Alexander's assured, striking production is a rich blend of these disparate elements. And there's something else as well. Where most theaters steer clear of this troublesome script, the Shakespeare Theatre has actually managed to unearth added resonances.
Alexander and designer Kit Surrey have set the Trojan War in an indeterminate semi-futuristic Asian locale where the Trojans wear exotic-looking Turkish garb while the Greeks make do with ragged fatigues that are clearly the worse after seven years' wear. Stacks of corroding oil drums in the background suggest footage of bombed-out Beirut. And when the soldiers engage in combat, their makeshift weapons -- sticks, clubs and shields fashioned from hubcaps and sewer grates -- have the crude, scavenged look of "Mad Max"-style science fiction.
The point is that the war on stage is not unlike those raging today in, say, Sarajevo or Somalia. It's a war that, in one form or another, has dragged on since ancient times and will undoubtedly persist into the future. Part of the satire derives from the characters' world-weary acknowledgment of this. The two sides have been fighting for so long, they've not only become acquainted, in some cases -- such as Hector and Ajax -- they're actually related.
What hope can a pair of lovers have against a long-standing brawl like this? The feud between the Capulets and Montagues pales by comparison -- not to mention the fact that Mark W. Conklin's proud Troilus and Gayle Finer's worldly Cressida seem far too jaded to ever consider killing themselves for love. Even at their most sincere, these characters are colored by a layer of irony that derives from our awareness of how fate will thwart them.
But the exemplars of the sarcastic spirit infecting this world are Floyd King's Pandarus and David Manis' Thersites. The archetypal go-between, whose name has become synonymous with "pimp," this Pandarus starts out as a sly, albeit somewhat degenerate, dandy and fittingly deteriorates into a dissipated wreck.
As to Thersites, Manis plays him not only as the standard Shakespearean fool, but also as a cripple; in other words, he's a physical as well as a verbal liability on the battlefield. But he's also the play's chief truth teller. On opening night, his delivery of the key line: "Lechery, lechery, still wars and lechery; nothing else holds fashion," was greeted with a chuckle.
Coming from a Washington audience in an election year, could this reaction be classified as comedy, tragedy, history -- or current events? Perhaps the best measure of the success of this production is that it seemed like all of the above.
and Cressida' When: Tuesdays to Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7:30 p.m., matinees Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. Through Oct. 25.
Where: Shakespeare Theatre, 450 Seventh St. N.W., Washington.
Call: (202) 393-2700.