Wartime Play Basks In Macho Culture

Shakespeare's 'Troilus and Cressida' pushes bounds in New York festival

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

TROILUS AND CRESSIDA

Play by William Shakespeare.

Directed by Mark Wing-Davey.

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At the Delacorte Theater through Sept. 2.

Postmodern from the get-go, Mark Wing-Davey's production of ''Troilus and Cressida'' projects William Shakespeare's play into a deconstructed time warp where ancient Greeks and Trojans battle over Helen of Troy with old-fashioned spears in one hand and contemporary pistols in the other.

What unites the evening's diversified elements is a steady fascination with masculine culture, seen as a skittish blend of macho aggressiveness and immature emotionalism.

The show's analyses of war, sexuality, and power politics are often the opposite of subtle, especially when they veer further into R-rated raunchiness than anything I've seen at Central Park's outdoor Delacorte Theater, which is normally conservative about such matters. But the proceedings are always lively, and Shakespeare's own text points the way to all but the most dubious lapses in taste. It's a memorable production, if sometimes an unwieldy and self-indulgent one.

The main story lines of ''Troilus and Cressida'' revolve around the love of the title characters and the protracted siege of Troy by Greek soldiers, sparked by Paris' abduction of Helen some seven years earlier. One doesn't expect gentleness from a play featuring warriors like Achilles and Hector, and sexual indelicacy isn't surprising when the aptly named Pandarus is on hand to promote the affair that preoccupies Cressida, his lovely niece.

Taking its cue accordingly, Wing-Davey's interpretation stresses the plot's most boisterous possibilities, firmly linking them to the play's war-torn setting. Questionable doings like Pandarus' smarmy machinations, feuds and rivalries among the soldiers, and the outrageous rantings of the misanthropic Thersites are all anchored in the masculine mystique of the battleground environment.

Making everything worse is the fact that many characters don't mind the chaos they're surrounded by, but actually like the anarchic nastiness it engenders.

The production's blunt approach to the text is balanced by a nuanced handling of stagecraft. The performing area is dominated by the poster-type image of a woman's face, recalling a wartime ''pinup'' as well as the fabled popularity of Helen of Troy, surely the Madonna of her day.

This picture is obscured when a stage-within-the-stage opens its huge doors, affording a multilevel arena for many of the play's more domestic scenes. Outdoor action takes place on a wide swath directly in front of the audience, emphasizing its bellicose violence all the more.

Most noteworthy in the large cast are Stephen Spinella as Pandarus, an insinuating creep with an overdone hairdo to match his inflated ego; Boris McGiver as Hector, at once dignified and dangerous; and Tim Blake Nelson as Thersites, never at a loss for an ill-humored word. Neal Huff and Elizabeth Marvel give capable portrayals of Troilus and Cressida, and Tamara Tunie is an appropriately feisty Helen.

Derek McLane did the impressive scenic design, and Christopher Akerlind created the near-cinematic lighting effects. Mark Bennett composed the varied and insistent score, supplemented with blasts of boombox rock. Their efforts contribute to an evening that's often powerful and inventive despite the awful belligerence that courses through it.

* ''Troilus and Cressida'' marks the 29th entry in the New York Shakespeare Festival's ongoing Shakespeare Marathon, initiated by former festival chief Joseph Papp eight years ago. ''The Tempest,'' this summer's previous Marathon production at the Delacorte, will reopen Oct. 10 at the Broadhurst Theater on Broadway, with Prospero again played by ''Star Trek'' star Patrick Stewart.

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