War is Helen

Making more of lesser Shakespeare

Austin Terrell as Ajax and Sean Scrutchins as Thersites in "Troilus and Cressida," through August 6.

You’ve probably heard the old saw about sex being like pizza: “Even when it’s not that great it’s still pretty good.” The same may be said of the works of Señor El Grande Jefe del Teatro, William Shakespeare.

Ol’ Will crushed it most of the time with comedies like Much Ado About Nothing and A Midsummer Night’s Dream; tragedies like Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet; and histories like Richard II and Henry IV. All of these endure, centuries after springing from Will’s quill, as sublime examples of theatrical excellence. Most people only ever see the Bard’s best, most well-known plays performed, so they never realize that there are, in fact, lesser plays in his folio.

If you think about it, it’s actually pretty edifying. Just like you and me, even Shakespeare had his off days.

Troilus and Cressida is one such lesser, “problem” play. It is neither comedy nor tragedy nor history. It is, instead, a Frankenstein’s monster cobbled together with parts from all three. It is therefore produced far less frequently than other, more popular Shakespeare fare. Colorado Shakespeare Festival (CSF) veteran, Director Carolyn Howarth, however, has a soft spot for Troilus and Cressida, and she and her cast and crew deliver the best possible version of one of Billy’s more neglected works.

Howarth’s decision to utilize a vague temporal setting — it could be the distant past or far-flung future — is gutsy and effective. The most successful element of Troilus and Cressida is Shakespeare’s satire and outright criticism of the futility and fundamental injustice of war. That lament is sadly timeless, a reality reflected by Howarth’s setting. Scenic Designer Caitlyn Ayer and Costume Designer Hugh Hanson sell Howarth’s vision of Greeks and Trojans divorced from time. Rusted, decaying metal columns float above the stage. The characters’ outfits would be as much at home in the 12th century as the 25th. There’s a definite Mad Max aesthetic going on — including a punk rock Cassandra (Emelie O’Hara) and some Nine Inch Nails to close the show — and it works.

Troilus and Cressida takes place during the seventh year of the 10-year Trojan War. The action bounces back and forth between the Trojans, holed up inside the high walls of Troy, and the Greeks, encamped around the city. Factions on both sides advocate for an end to the senseless violence — remember, the entire war was over the Greek Helen (Lindsey Kyler) running off with the Trojan Paris (Jihad Milhem) — while their rich and royal leaders push the war forward out of pride and pugnaciousness.

In Troy, Pandarus (Howard Swain) plays matchmaker to Troilus (Christopher Joel Onken) and Cressida (Carolyn Holding). Pandarus’ attempts to pave the way for the young lovers’ woo-making are as operatic as they are humorous. Kudos to Swain for his go-for-broke take on the world’s first panderer. Onken convinces as an earnest suitor, and Holding — as she does in The Comedy of Errors — is riveting as she makes Shakespeare’s dusty dialogue sound text-slang modern.

In the Greek camp, the famed yet disillusioned Achilles (Geoffrey Kent), perfectly costumed in a red, yin yang kimono top, refuses to fight. While Achilles is content to languish in his tent, the Trojans propose a one-on-one death match — seemingly for bragging rights alone — and the Greeks choose Ajax (Austin Terrell) as their champion. Despite the presence of big names like Achilles, Agamemnon (Kelsey Didion) and Ulysses (Mare Trevathan), the most memorable member of Team Greek is the fool, Thersites (Sean Scrutchins). Thersites gets 90 percent of the best comedy bits in Troilus and Cressida, and Scrutchins milks every laugh from every line. Between his bawdy, ball-busting Thersites and his turn as the unhinged German doctor in The Comedy of Errors, Scrutchins’ 2016 CSF run is one to be remembered, a highlight reel of hilarity.

War is hell. The rich get richer, and the poor get fucked. True love is a fake fairy tale. Heroes are merely villains with better press agents. Such are the cynical lessons of Troilus and Cressida, arguably one of Shakespeare’s most existential plays. And like Matt Damon making a living off of gun-porn films while simultaneously advocating for the U.S. government to confiscate its citizens’ guns, Troilus and Cressida suffers from more than a little hypocrisy. After spending the first two-thirds decrying the horrors of war, Shakespeare fills the final third with more fight scenes and bloody deaths than a kung fu movie marathon.

All hail Howarth and company for making more of lesser Shakespeare!

On the Bill: Troilus and Cressida. Mary Rippon Outdoor Theatre, University of Colorado, 303-492-8008. Through Aug. 6. Full CSF schedule at coloradoshakes.org.

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