Ashland, Ore. — It is likely that Shakespeare was thinking of ''Troilus and Cressida'' when he had Hamlet protest the fate of a play that ''pleased not the million; 'twas caviare to the general.''
Like the lost Trojan epic Hamlet recalls to the Player King, ''Troilus'' ''was never acted; or, if it was, not above once,'' at least in the author's lifetime.
It's no small wonder ''Troilus'' did not find an Elizabethan audience; 31/2 centuries later, the real question is whether it is too avant-garde for popular acceptance in 1984. It is a deeply cynical and bitter play, a brutal travesty on conventional ideas (then and now) of glory, heroism, and honor. It doesn't have any good guys, to speak of. Not only is there no happy ending, there isn't even a proper resolution.
But here we have the Oregon Shakespearean Festival, which is committed to performing all of the Bard's work, and one suspects that its managers faced their turn to do ''Troilus'' with a bit of trepidation. Their staging needn't please the million, literally, but the production that opened in late February will have played 61 times before closing in early September, so they are counting on it to please several tens of thousands of playgoers at the least.
To the festival's credit, however, the many thousands that do find their way to a performance will witness an unclassifiable event unlike anything they've seen in a theater before.
''Updating'' Shakespeare is very much in fashion, but ''Troilus and Cressida'' presents a different challenge. It would be impossible to do this play about the Trojan War and not have it refer to the present cold war. One cannot watch the councils of Shakespeare's fractious Greeks - the vapid, cliche-spouting Agamemnon; the scheming Ulysses; the mindlessly belligerent Ajax; the pouting, preening Achilles; the sycophantic Menelaus - without thinking of President Reagan's Cabinet or the Soviet Politburo. Shakespeare's portrait of pointless conflict is so contemporary as to be uncanny.
Guest director Richard E.T. White, brought up from the Berkeley Shakespeare Festival for the occasion, made the wise decision to underplay the obvious modern parallels. Instead, together with set designer William Bloodgood and costumer Michael Olich, he elected to create a timeless ambiance of violence and lechery. Bloodgood's toppling towers of Ilium are built on a mound of skulls and debris conveying not just seven years' ceaseless battle, but an eternity of war (and reminding us that Troy is now indeed a mound). Olich's eclectic costumes borrow from Greek, Trojan, Japanese samurai, and post-Holocaust punk (with an admitted debt to the Australian film ''The Road Warrior''), all of it evoking a society that has become utterly bestialized.
What emerges is an intriguing blend of spectacle and satire, a combination of which Shakespeare would no doubt have approved. (I'm convinced that the author would have liked this production, regretting only that he couldn't have taken the same liberties in 1601.) White's vision of a world in which violence has become a god and lechery a reflex action is horrific but riveting.
The lovers whose names make up the play's title don't really engage our sympathies, and their tale, far from being a tragedy of doomed lovers, is a mockery of romance. Troilus, appropriately played by Todd Cohen, is a shrill, impetuous youth, a Trojan prince not particularly admirable or even adult. He is at least ardent in a juvenile way; Cressida, on the other hand, proves almost comically faithless. She and Troilus exchange what may be the most protracted vows of fidelity in the history of the stage, but after the lovers are separated (the Trojans trade her to the Greeks for a prisoner of war), she throws Troilus over almost instantaneously for the predatory and altogether detestable Diomedes (played with a perfect sense of sneering self-assurance by Paul Vincent O'Connor).
As Cressida, Susan Wands is undeniably appealing, but this is something of a liability; for this production, at least, Cressida needs to be harder beneath her seeming sweetness.
The only character in the play who learns anything from the grisly goings-on, ironically, is the one who has lived in infamy - Pandarus, the go-between who brings Troilus and Cressida together and gave pandering a bad name. As played with ribald glee by Wayne Ballantyne, Pandarus isn't really such a bad fellow. He certainly isn't very moral, talking Cressida, his niece, into sexual relations with Troilus without benefit of marriage, but he seems fond of them both, and is genuinely distraught at the outcome. It is Pandarus, appalled by watching Paris and Helen groping passionately, who begins to grasp the play's cynical theme: ''Is love a generation of vipers?''
Shakespeare's (and Director White's) treatment of Paris and Helen, she of the face that launched the proverbial thousand ships, is enough to demythologize romance for good. Paris's theft of Helen from the Greeks - to which in Shakespeare's mind she was a willing victim - sparked the Trojan War, and Shakespeare, ably interpreted here, makes it all too plain that the cause for war was mere vanity and lust. Joan Stuart-Morris brings a sort of ghastly glamour to Helen, revealing a painted-over rottenness within, while Gregg Loughridge is deliciously sleazy as Paris, a hothouse flower of a ladies' man.
Lechery here is really just the pretext and subplot to war, though, and Shakespeare devotes the best of his satire to the mythic heroes. The Trojans don't come off all that badly; their chief sin is a deluded belief in a code of honor and revenge. Robert Sicular's Hector is an affecting figure, humane and reasonable enough to prefer peace, but all too ready to be lured back onto the field by Troilus's boyish prating of military virture.
It is for the ultimately victorious Greeks that Shakespeare saves most of his shafts, and a ludicrous, if deadly, band of buffoons and braggarts White and his actors make them. Richard Enison is a wonderfully dimwitted Ajax; John David Castellanos as Achilles has the right air of childish narcissism; Daniel Renner is a suitably decadent Patroclus (Achilles' lover); and Allen Nause delivers what must be considered the author's jaundiced point of view with rabid enthusiasm as the sniveling Thersites, the play's equivalent of a fool-figure. Joe Vincent as Ulysses gives a strong enough performance, but seems trapped in the traditionally heroic mold - a nastier interpretation of the Greek's leading conniver would have better suited White's witches' brew.
''Troilus and Cressida'' isn't simply an exposure of folly; it is an outright assault, and is thus in a sense misanthropic. Elizabethan audiences weren't prepared for so harsh an attack on militarism and its consequences. Modern viewers may instead laugh with grim recognition.
The Oregon Shakespearean Festival production doesn't shy away from the play's unloveliness; White instead heightens it into a parade of grotesqueries which makes for an extraordinary, if grim, theatrical experience. It will be interesting to see whether, after nearly 400 years, audiences have caught up with Shakespeare yet.
The rest of the festival's spring season was no doubt chosen with an eye to counter ''Troilus's'' grimness. James Moll's ''Hay Fever'' is just the kind of clockwork toy it should be. Jerry Turner's production of ''Translations'' - Brian Friel's elegy for a lost Irish culture - overlays a tone of sorrow with a lilt and lyricism that keep matters entertaining throughout.
The most interesting, though least successful, of the other offerings is ''London Assurance,'' a revival of a comedy of manners by Dion Boucicault which was a hit in 1841 and has seldom been seen since. Hugh Evans's production has its moments; his actors manage a laugh on every line that remains even remotely funny. For long stretches, however, ''London Assurance'' is chiefly of historical interest. Still, that era of theater has been so thoroughly eclipsed from the modern repertory that the historical interest is great. ''London Assurance'' can be cheerfully recommended to those fascinated enough by theater to enjoy assessing its antiques.
Tennessee Williams's ''Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,'' directed by festival regular Pat Patton, opened April 27. ''Cat,''' ''London Assurance,'' and ''Hay Fever'' will be around until the end of October, and ''Translations'' until the end of September, to be joined by five more productions during the course of the year.