Chances are you've never seen a performance of Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida. Why not? For starters, it requires a huge cast enough men to portray the Greek and Trojan armies, plus assorted women and servants. Then there's the ricochet style one minute bawdy, the next romantic slapstick humor mixed with tragedy in an amalgamation of characters and conflicts. In this St. Louis Shakespeare production, Director Donna Northcott faces these challenges head-on, winning many battles with the behemoth text in the struggle to present the story clearly.
The first challenge is the romance of the title characters. Troilus (Brendan Allred) and Cressida (Rory Lipede) are echoes of Romeo and Juliet, aided here by Pandarus (Donna Weinsting) instead of the Nurse. Pandarus is written as a male role gender-switching makes the character more yenta than pimp, but it works. Allred and Lipede bring genuine giddiness to their love scene, and when these war-crossed lovers are torn apart Cressida is "traded" by her father for a Trojan prisoner of war and must go live with the Greeks their distress is heart-rending. But it's unclear why Troilus doesn't fight to keep Cressida with him. After all, they're already at war over one woman; his brother Paris is the one who stole Helen from Menelaus.
The action gets murkier once Cressida is in the Greek camp. After swearing to be faithful to Troilus, she suddenly seems to be arranging a tryst with Diomedes (sultry Roger Erb), teasing him by calling him back repeatedly and giving him a love token that Troilus had given to her. Witnessing the exchange, Troilus is heartbroken, but the audience is merely confused she seemed so sincere in her vow to Troilus.
The second challenge is creating the two armies. Northcott cast the roles well and costume designer Michele Friedman Siler provides leather armor that shows off the buff bods of most of the actors. On the Trojan side, standouts include Jake Bantel as Paris, Ben Ritchie as Aeneas and Jim Butz as the noble Hector. Butz's clear delivery and intense engagement are models the entire cast should emulate. In the Greek camp, Cameron Ulrich is outstanding as Ajax his Bluto-like performance earns the production's second-biggest laugh (the biggest comes when Charlie Barron, as Thersites, imitates Ajax).
The final challenge is creating realistic battle scenes, and here fight choreographer Robert A. McPherson has done excellent work. The cast is well-rehearsed and the fights are exciting and realistic. But again, a confusing plot twist dampens the success. Swirling fog abruptly appears, and Hector who up to this point has been a merciful soldier suddenly becomes enamored of the armor worn by another man and kills him for it. While donning his prize, he's ambushed by Achilles and killed. Hector's death, added to Cressida's betrayal (both confusing plot points), lead Troilus to despair and the play ends with cursing, threats that the audience will catch diseases and the Trojans' impending doom. Troilus is not a tragic hero, but a soldier in someone else's war, moved by events around him but seemingly unable to change his future. This fatalistic philosophy pervades Troilus and Cressida, grit that covers all the characters like the dirt the soldiers try to wash away.
The trimmed script still runs about three hours. Within that time the reckless play teeters between brilliance and bewilderment. Robin Weatherall's evocative soundscape is often muddied by cues that fade in and out too abruptly. Jim Dolan's lighting design and Patrick Huber's scenic design help the audience adjust to multiple locations. Overall, the flawed production remains intriguing if for no other reason than its novelty and the Herculean efforts of all involved.