Troilus and Cressida

Though many were skeptical, “Troilus and Cressida” turns out to be one of the better shows at the Utah Shakespearean Festival, thanks to clear directing and a good ensemble cast.

The reason for the skepticism was that “Troilus and Cressida” is difficult to classify. It’s difficult to tell whether Shakespeare meant it as a comedy, tragedy, romance, or something else.

This production, in the hands of director Paul Barnes, turns out to be more comedy than anything, though a rather dark and nasty one.

It cannot be a tragedy, for there are no heroes. That absence of heroes is part of the ironic humor, as the play takes place during the Trojan War, which we’ve always been told was crawling with heroes. “Troilus and Cressida” shows it to be full of men who were just plain ol’ MEN: lecherous, deceitful and immature.

Hector (Michael A. Harding), for example, slaps his wife when she urges him not to fight. The great warrior Achilles (Matt Ramsey) lazes around his tent, refusing to fight until his gay lover Patroclus (David McNamara) is killed in battle, finally spurring him to action. All of the Greek men paw at and kiss Cressida (Tyler Layton) in a most creepy fashion when she is traded to them as a prisoner of war.

Anti-heroes, if ever there were any.

The war between the Trojans and the Greeks has been going on for seven years, but no one seems to take it very seriously. Instead, the men stand around importantly in their short skirts and pasty thighs, talking about tactics and doing comically insulting impressions of one another. Trojan Hector challenges the Greeks to send forth their best warrior for a duel against him, but it seems more like a cross-town football rivalry than a to-the-death battle — in fact, the Greeks invite the messenger to stay for dinner.

The “best warrior” is Achilles, but he ain’t goin’. Instead, the huge and stupid Ajax (John Pasha, earning many laughs as an oaf who has no idea he’s an oaf), is sent … and he and Hector wind up being friends.

In fact, no one ever gets serious about fighting until it gets personal. Troilus (Cameron McNary) is mad at Diomedes (Jason Manuel Olazabal) for apparently stealing Cressida’s affection; Achilles is mad at Hector for killing his boyfriend.

The war (the scenes of which are expertly staged, by the way) is basically just a big game for the boys to play, and they occasionally get their feelings hurt.

And that seems to be the point, or one of them. It’s a man’s world, and the men keep screwing it up. The only characters to exhibit much sense for any length of time are the women, who are outnumbered 25 to five by the male characters in this play. Ultimately, this prideful, testosterone-laden method of doing things leads to unhappiness for pretty much everyone — but it’s not truly tragic, because everyone sort of deserves it.

As Troilus, McNary suffers from Leonardo DiCapriosis, an ailment in which a pretty-faced young performer is mostly very good but occasionally just sulks poutily while everyone else is busy acting. His scenes with Cressida are good, though, and Layton is marvelous. Her Cressida is beautiful and smart, the kind of gal you’d want to fall in love with. Her unfaithfulness with Diomedes, however, is unmotivated and strange — an anomaly which the play never explains, and which some commentators feels is a weakness in old Bill’s playwriting.

Cressida’s voyeuristic uncle Pandarus (Nick Toren) is amusing at first, but soon becomes overdone, a glaringly half-baked performance amidst many good ones.

The overall tone of this play is one of cynicism, almost satire. Right up until the last couple acts, we feel like it’s nothing but fun — and then things turn awful, and we realize this is no fluffy, light-hearted comedy. It’s dark, to be sure, but it’s the kind of dark that’s satisfyingly unsettling to watch.

Since I knew this play was not very familiar to a lot of people, I read the script beforehand to familiarize myself with it. I saw a lot of humor in it, and I was glad to see the production keep much of it. The satiric tone surprised me, as I had not picked that up from reading the play, but it fit well. It takes guts to tackle an unfamiliar, "difficult" show like this, and the festival did it well.