Monday, June 25, 2018

Troilus & Cressida (performance)

Cressida (Hannah Woodside)
Alex Belisle Photography

From Facebook, 6/23/2018
A five year-old child, the daughter of local high school teacher, saw the Cleveland Shakespeare Festival production of Troilus & Cressida at the Grove Amphitheater in Mayfield Village, and observed that the Greeks were the dominant force, that they are the oppressors. Or as she calls them, “bullies” (see right). Indeed, the Greeks are the invading force, having attacked Troy for the return of the legendary Helen … though that is not evident in our production.

There is in this production no apparent reason for the war. No Helen, no Menelaus. Paris is present, but as an older, career military officer (Leonard Goff) lending gravitas and history to the proceedings. The Greeks, costumed here to resemble Americans, are the apparent dominant force, seeking to occupy Troy.

After years of conflict, however, the battle has drawn to a stalemate. Ulysses (Minor Cline) perceives a lethargy which has settled into the Grecian troops. They observe, “Troy in our weakness stands, not in her strength.” It is a common American lament.

But what makes them bullies? The young audience member was no doubt affected by the manner in which Cressida (Hannah Woodside) resembling in her garments a non-Western woman, is passed around by the soldiers when she arrives in the Greek camp, having been traded for a Trojan soldier at the request of her father, the Trojan traitor Calchas (Calchas does not appear) who works with the Greeks.

"I'll have my kiss."
Patroclus (Shaun Dillon) & Cressida (Hannah Woodside)
Alex Belisle Photography
Other productions attack this scene quite aggressively. It’s practically a rape scene. The CSF performs in public parks, and while I knew that presenting Troilus & Cressida might not be the most family-friendly of stories, we didn’t want to horrify those who brought young children to see some free, outdoor Shakespeare. Children are also not the only people who can become distressed by the sight of sexual violence. If only more people were, perhaps this world would be a better place.

And besides, the very suggestion of an unwanted advance is something more people these days find uncomfortable to witness.

Yet, it was not my intention to make the Greeks "bad guys." Ironically, Cressida herself is supposed to be the bad guy. Shakespeare’s audience were as familiar with Chaucer’s version of Troilus and Criseyde as we are with Shakespeare’s version of Romeo and Juliet. Troilus is a model of fealty, and Cressida of fecklessness, almost immediately partnering with the Greek warrior Diomedes (Michael Johnson).

However, in spite of how she has been played for the past four hundred years, I was struck by her private laments. It’s not that she doubts her own ability to be faithful, it’s that she doubts the very idea of faithfulness. She blames it in part on the female condition, but then women have traditionally been judged more harshly for their behavior than men.

At the very beginning of our process, I held private character meetings with each member of the company, and I was surprised by an idea that both Michael (Diomedes) and Hannah (Cressida) suggested, which was that they had had a prior relationship.

Diomedes (Michael Johnson)
Alex Belisle Photography
This was certainly not Shakespeare’s idea, nor is there any basis for it in antiquity. But in the world I had proposed and that we were working together to create, could it not be possible? Why is Cressida there, in a theater of war? We decided she was a translator, it would give this apparent civilian a certain fluidity between camps. Perhaps they had had a moment, nothing too serious. And nothing known.

It is Diomedes, after all, who removes Cressida from her mistreatment by the other soldiers.

It went a long way to explain the scene in which Troilus (Brinden Harvey) asks Ulysses where Cressida is staying, and they over hear an intimate conversation, surprisingly intimate. Why would Cressida attach herself to Diomedes to swiftly? It makes no emotional sense to Troilus. Ulysses has already dismissed her as a whore.

But after her assault by the soldiers in Ulysses’s company, why would she not seek protection from one with whom she was already familiar? I wonder how apparent this is to the audience. All I know is a young girl likes Cressida best, and that is all right with me.

The Cleveland Shakespeare Festival "Troilus & Cressida" continues through July 1, 2018.

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