IN FRIDAY'S REVIEW OF "TROILUS AND CRESSIDA" AT WASHINGTON SHAKESPEARE COMPANY, THE NAME OF ACHILLES' COMPANION WAS INCORRECT. THE CHARACTER IS PATROCLES. (PUBLISHED 06/22/99)
A director who works straight from instinct can achieve astonishing results and productions that seem purer and stronger than less intuitive work by directors of equal, or even greater, talent. The downside is that if that instinct falters, such a director may lack the mundane skills to help him or her over the dry patches. This is what has happened to the often-brilliant Joe Banno ("Romeo and Juliet") with his Washington Shakespeare Company production of "Troilus and Cressida," which is just one dry patch after another.
Directing this bitter play is no walk in the sun to begin with. Set during the Trojan War, the play tells the unhappy love story of Troilus (Jeffrey Johnson), younger brother of the Trojan hero Hector (Jim Zidar), and Cressida (Michelle Shupe), the daughter of a traitor who has gone over to the Greeks.
Brought together by her uncle Pandarus (John Emmert), the lovers are parted almost immediately when in a prisoner exchange Cressida is sent to join her father in the Greek camp. Before she goes, Troilus is almost hysterical with worry that she won't be true to him. Turns out he has reason.
The play's military subplot concerns the efforts of the Greek generals to get lazy, recalcitrant Achilles (Andy Rapoport) to rejoin the fighting, with the wily Ulysses (Waleed F. Zuaiter) manipulating the famous warrior's vanity to get him back on the field.
Even in a production that works (as Bill Alexander's did splendidly at the Shakespeare Theatre in the early '90s), the two plots, and the worlds in which they take place, fit together uneasily. Though it appears to be about love as well as war, "Troilus and Cressida" is arguably Shakespeare's most sheerly masculine play. The complex and interesting characters are the warrior generals, while the only woman with more than a few lines, Cressida, is a slut.
Tony Cisek's two-level set is a Quonset-hut military camp below and a luxurious palace interior above, but Banno doesn't direct for the contrast. He doesn't really direct here at all, actually--he just lobs notions at the play, hoping perhaps to stone it into submission.
So we have a swishily gay Pandarus, plus an Achilles who not only dallies with Pandarus (a relationship strongly implied in the text) but also has decorated his hut's exterior like a layout from "Gay Cliche" magazine. Banno has turned the sour Thersites (Delia Taylor) into a woman and married her to the loutish Ajax (Allan Jirikowic), who beats her.
Hector and Ajax fight their one-on-one duel in a parody of World Championship Wrestling. Agamemnon is played by a woman less than four feet tall (Suzanne Richard), and it's never clear whether we're supposed to ignore her gender or not. Helen of Troy (Rana Kay) is a nymphet of 13 or 14, a sulky near-brat. As each novelty is unveiled, the audience perks up briefly to wonder where Banno is going with this. Unfortunately, the answer is nowhere.
The production is so fragmented and stagnant that not even the cast's most talented actors--and this is a cast with a lot of talented actors--can get performances going. They're reduced to doing shtick from scene to scene. The love story is unconvincing, the war story is confusing, and, at nearly three hours, the evening is interminable.
Banno closes with a final image that shows how genuinely inventive he can be. Ulysses picks up a toy horse that has been sitting onstage all along and looks at it speculatively. We watch the idea of hiding troops in a gigantic wooden horse and smuggling them into Troy come into his mind, and we shiver accordingly.
Or we would, if up behind Ulysses we couldn't see that the Greeks have in fact not only already made it to Troy, they've gotten all the way into the palace and they've killed Troilus, over whose body they're standing even as Ulysses muses about how to get them in there. That horse won't run.
Troilus and Cressida, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Joe Banno. Dramaturg, Cam Magee; lights, Marianne Meadows; costumes, William Pucilowsky; sound, Dan Schrader; props, Jessie Duncanson; fights, Michael Johnson. With Jeff Lofton, Robin Ervin, Daniel Ladmirault, Eric Sutton, Tom Quinn, Scot McKenzie, Bryan Cassidy. At the Clark Street Playhouse, 601 S. Clark St., Arlington, through July 11. Call 703-418-4808.
CAPTION: Pandarus (John Emmert, center) plays matchmaker for ill-fated lovers Cressida (Michelle Shupe) and Troilus (Jeffrey Johnson).