The Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival's (PSF) annual "Extreme Shakespeare" production, prepared and rehearsed as we suspect was standard in William Shakespeare's time, was risky when launched with 2011's The Two Noble Kinsmen. Today it's one of the summer company's reliable features, as Troilus and Cressida proves.
PSF's consistent formula involves hiring a fine cast who learn their lines in advance and convene just a few days before opening. They use whatever scenic elements are available in the Schubert Theatre (this year, leftovers from Steve TenEyck's light and set designs for The Hound of the Baskervilles), and gather costumes and props from the company's storage. They work together without a director.
A challenging script
PSF uses "Extreme Shakespeare" to showcase lesser-known Shakespeare plays that might not draw audiences with full productions, and which also won't suffer from comparison to other productions. An "Extreme Shakespeare" Hamlet, for example, might lack the overarching vision and carefully prepared nuance of a full production. However, since Troilus and Cressida is seldom produced, any performance is a treat. The same can be said of King John (2012), Henry VIII (2013), Pericles (2015), and last summer's Love's Labour's Lost, all of which featured some of the same actors as Troilus and Cressida.
Set against the backdrop of the ongoing Trojan War, the title characters (Brandon J. Pierce as Troilus and Mairin Lee as Cressida) are lovers, encouraged by Cressida’s Uncle Pandarus (Carl N. Wallnau). The Greeks — helpfully identified with primarily black clothing — want the Trojans, in red, to return Helen (Ally Borgstrom), taken by Paris (Jacob Dresch), but Troy resists. Greek leader Agamemonon (Lindsay Smiling) deals with dissension in his ranks; Nestor (Eric Hissom) and Ulysses (Greg Wood) blame moody Achilles (Justin Adams), who prefers the company of Patroclus (Peter Danelski).
Trojan leader Aeneas (Anthony Lawton) brings an offer to match champion against champion: Hector (Luigi Sottile) will fight the Greeks' best, presumably Achilles, but they send Ajax (Andrew Goebel) instead. All this action, including interference from crafty Thersites (Susan Riley Stevens), overshadows Troilus and Cressida, but the fine cast's assured performances make the warring sides' negotiations clear and vital. The uncredited fight choreography is smartly staged.
Focus returns to the lovers when the Trojans trade Cressida to the Greeks for a prisoner, and Troilus fears she's willingly given herself to Greek captain Diomedes (Dan Tracy). This production clarifies, in a brutal assault scene, that her actions are necessary for survival. Troilus and Cressida concerns war more than love, however, and its finale lacks the moral certainty of, for instance, Romeo and Juliet. Free of the patriotic duty that celebrates English victories in his history plays, Shakespeare reveals how all sides lose in a war that no one wants but no one can end.
In this respect and others — Achilles's intimacy with Patroclus, for example — this Troilus and Cressida feels very modern, albeit without production elements underscoring the point. Where a director might try to solve the lovers' unsatisfying ending and even choose sides, PSF's actors wisely present their characters as complex men and women navigating an impossible situation.