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Troilus and Cressida

Theatre Review by Warren Hoffman

It's a shame that Shakespeare's tragedy Troilus and Cressida is so infrequently performed as Marcian Productions' current staging demonstrates that it's quite a worthy play deserving attention. This production of Troilus and Cressida, helmed by Marc Fajer and featuring a talented multiracial and diverse ensemble, is an engaging and exciting evening of theater. Few theater companies could pull off such an epic story with what must be a tight budget and do it with such Úlan.

Troilus and Cressida's plot, for those who don't know the play, is more familiar than many might guess. Derived primarily from Homer's Iliad, Shakespeare's play follows the romance between Troilus and Cressida, which develops against the background of the Trojan War. Remember Helen and all the trouble she caused when captured by Paris and the Trojans? Despite the catastrophic events caused by this abduction and the epic scope of the Iliad, Shakespeare's work, particularly in this version which has a small ensemble of only ten actors doubling and tripling in roles, reveals the personal and intimate relationships driving such large-scale animosities.

Don't think that a small ensemble will cheat you out of fully experiencing Shakespeare's work. If anything, this group of actors brings the play's major themes of love, hate, truth, treachery, and deception into sharp focus. Director Marc Fajer has staged the play in what looks like an empty lot, covered with hilarious punning graffiti, designed by graffiti artists Gabe Banner and Ian Mazie. (Some of my favorite graffiti tag lines that adorn the theater include "Eros not Ares" and "Take Me to Your Leda.") The graffiti designs transform the black box space into a veritable inner city gang land where the Trojans and Greeks often seem more like the Sharks and the Jets (or Capulets and Montagues, if you will). Indeed, the parallels between this work and Shakespeare's more popularly known Romeo and Juliet are quite pronounced as both plays feature young lovers who are forced to split up due to the tensions of warring factions.

Though the play emphasizes the contemporary relevance of a war without end for current audiences, the real attraction of the play is watching the personal relationships and decisions that are made in the face of war. The questions that the play begs are essentially ones of free choice vs. determinism. In the milieu of Greek society, the characters cry out to the gods for guidance and assistance, never realizing that the war's outcome is ultimately in their hands. Though Greek gods might seem far removed from our own time, the parallels between classical mythology and contemporary religion as motivations for war resonate loudly. Jenny Hellman's costumes, which range from the inventive to the amateurish, further reinforce the connections between Greek history and modernity, as she has garbed the actors in both street clothes and classically inspired outfits.

The strongest feature of this production is its first-rate ensemble of actors, led by the amazing and captivating Damian Buzzerio as Pandarus, Cressida's uncle. Buzzerio has taken an unusual approach to the figure, playing him as an effeminate tragic gay "queen," advising his niece on the proper way of how to "hook" Troilus, her love interest. Surprisingly, it's a choice that works as Buzzerio brings a sense of love, humanity, and best of all gay chattiness to what might have otherwise been a throwaway part. Even when he isn't speaking, he thoroughly embodies the sympathetic Pandarus, just observe his silent ecstasies as he watches how Troilus woos Cressida. Buzzerio's Pandarus conveys the heart of a true romantic who just wants to see his niece happy. As the butch Ulysses, a Greek prince, Buzzerio offers an equally stalwart and electric turn, reveling in every nuance of Shakespeare's text.

The other actors are also excellent, some more so than others. Andrew Zimmerman is a giddy love-sick Troilus who bubbles over with passion for Cressida while managing a sharp about-face as he watches as his love is stolen away from him by Diomedes (Michael Ernest Moore). Jennifer Boggs has the challenging job of playing both Cressida and the male figure Hector, very different figures which she carries off equally well. As flighty and schoolgirlish as her Cressida is, her Hector is the embodiment of strength and resolute action. The final star ensemble member is Kiebpoli Calnek who smoothly shifts among her various roles from Cassandra, crazy prophetess, to Nestor, ancient Greek prince, to most notably, Thersites, the play's "requisite" fool. Calnek delights in the wacky idiosyncrasies of Nestor and Thersites, loping around the stage with a deformed gait and a stuffed snake as her sidekick for the latter figure.

Director Fajer has given his own firm imprint on this work, honoring both the original text while not afraid to highlight the contemporary aspects of the play, often through the use of sly visual cues. He reinforces the play's potentially queer relationship between Achilles (Pascal Beauboeuf) and his young male love Patroclus (Michelle Kovacs) who wears the tongue-in-cheek shirt that reads "Boys Will Do Boys." Similarly, Fajer has reimagined the virtually silent character of the cuckolded Menelaus (Helen's husband), and has turned him into a perpetual drunk who wears a tunic with a Chicago Bulls logo (Horns, get it?) Every moment of the play is finely choreographed by Fajer to bring out the nuances of Shakespeare's detailed and rich language.

Marcian Productions' staging is a highly theatrical production and proves that one can do great theater with modest means. Given that Troilus and Cressida is so rarely performed, one should definitely catch what is a smartly produced staging of an overlooked gem.

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Troilus and Cressida
Through April 4
Milagro Theater, Clemente Soto Velez Cultural and Community Center
107 Suffolk Street between Rivington and Delancey
Schedule and Tickets: 212.868.4444