The Classic Stage Company's The Age of Iron
(through December 13), directed by Brian Kulick
, is a mash-up of sorts of one of William Shakespeare's well known problem plays Troilus and Cressida
and Iron Age
by Thomas Heywood, a similarly prolific (if we believe his own accounts
) contemporary of The Bard who was more inclined to write prose than rhymed verse. But as the dust from battle on the stage settled (literally, more on that later), it was still unclear as to why we needed to mash these two things up at all, given that Bill Shakespeare's version of the events at hand is about as comprehensive a telling of the Trojan war (and the teen-angsty love of Troilus and Cressida) as one needs. To claim such a conglomeration so blatantly on the marquee, one would think the connection might be a little more clear and warranted.
Of course, with any modern reproduction of Shakespearean-era drama that isn't a precise re-staging of something that played at the Globe, there is the decision about how much to update the play to appeal more broadly to the contemporary audience and not just please the classic thespians. In this light, Heywood's work may be more accessible (although less well known), therefore justifying the addition, from a linguistic stand point. Iron Age
, although no less powerful, is not written in iambic pentameter and the relatively difficult language necessary to pull it off successfully. Heywood's work surely gave lee-way for Kulick to break from rhyming verse and then fall back into it as he pleased; it was hard to tell which lines were coming from which play, or if they were were coming from either at all. And after all the running about, the actors were often too out of breath to deliver them. That being said, there is a certain expectation of something much grander to come from the synthesis of two such historically important and seminal takes on the Trojan epic, and that was definitely not met.
The slack and the lack of focus in the verse of the play was picked up jarringly by the physical action of the production. In the opening minutes of the play the audience is presented with one of the more familiar (if you're unfamiliar with this story, the Times review
provides a helpful plot summary) situations from the annals of the Trojan War when Priam's son Paris arrives on the shores of Troy during a strictly "diplomatic" mission and Menelaus infamously gives his wife Helen the permission, nay, the command, to entertain the Spartans, providing them with all the comforts of home. Helen obliges enthusiastically and the intimate action here is choreographed majestically, as Paris (played by a properly impractical Craig Baldwin) and Helen (languidly played like a sly fox-ette by Tina Benko) role through the giant litter-box that acts as a stage in a massive red silk curtain pulled down from the ceiling.
The resulting events (a decade-long war, the launching of a thousand ships, the death of Hector and Achilies and everyone else, etc.) are hard to take knowing exactly the paltry situation that sets them off, and the pair does an adequate job of conveying their selfishness and naiveté. Their purring and pawing at each other like two cozy felines, plotting their abduction/escape sets up the precedent for a physically complicated production of movement and undulation, tumbling and tossing, flailing and fighting, punching and poking, sprinting and crawling; at moments bordering on a performance art piece as opposed to a quasi-Shakespearean drama. In this aspect of motion, there was great success and pleasure; excitement even.
The set adds to the difficulty of the physical demands the actors face; the stage is surrounded on three sides by the audience (leaving no place to hide) and is a giant sandbox—the Trojan war was essentially fought on a beach, remember). It is difficult to walk for long periods of time on dry sand let alone jog and sprint on it, let alone perform some of the complicated choreography required to stage the fight scenes in this play; facts that impress after the fact as the actors make it look easy, despite their glistening brows. The very nature of sand, the fact that it is soft and pliable, calls for much tumbling and falling roughly to the stage (a good portion of the interaction between Troilus and Cressida is spent in the dirt, skittering crab-like, and clawing through the sand, letting it run down between their fingertips in despair) and the way that it sprayed about during the battle scenes gave a true sense of violence to the action.
At times all this movement and turning about was a bit overwhelming, which isn't to say that some of Shakespeare's more verbose and tongue-twisting plays couldn't do with a little Michael Bay-esque action to give the eyes a treat as well as the ears, but the addition of Heywood's opus creates an excuse for a good portion of the Bard's language to disappear, leaving only the interactions between Troilus and Cressida intact. Much of the result is rough and caustic; violence in physicality as well as a hacking sword like language that has none of the grace or charm of the Shakespearean norm. The battle scenes are loud and gory (using your imagination for the blood of course), replete with Matrix
-style freeze framing, the audience on three sides produces the camera whirling around the action effect; ten warriors locked in a death coil, frozen in time, with narration during these engagements compliments of the cackling and screeching Thersites (played by Steven Rattazzi in one of the more notable and engaging performances in the piece). There is much screaming, boasting and carrying on in the rest of the play too, as the armies convene not only to battle but to drink and eat, recreating the inside of an ancient frat house with all the back and forth pissing contests necessary to give the audience a truly chauvinistic headache. The level of difficulty that any cast faces though can only go so far, before there is revolt, and Kulick seems to spend all of his cast's intensity on this choreography and action, leaving no strength for the players to deliver their lines. The audience can see the glorious sizzle but never gets to taste the steak.
One of the most interesting aspects of Shakespearean drama is the ease with which one can apply a modern and more practical lens to the situations and subject matter within his plays. For all his grandiose verse, he wrote about human beings in a way that hasn't been oft replicated since. The most obvious example of this is Romeo and Juliet
, where we are presented with a supposed tale of epic romance and love, unrequited passion and desire, death, glorious death; but if you break it down and approach it with the tiniest iota of cynicism, looking at the characters themselves instead of the overreaching themes, you're left with two amorous teens who whine and pine about each other and then haphazardly kill themselves in the name of a love that is more based on lust and hormones than anything else; do they even really know each other? Do they need to? The peanut gallery at the Globe probably laughed about the silliness of it all at the pub afterward.
Troilus (played by a dashing, brunette DiCaprio, Finn Wittrock) and Cressida (a barefooted and sprightly Dylan Moore) are no different in their passionate expression of their hormones from the other teen lovers, but their childishness is even more apparent. As Cressida is traded to the Greeks to secure the release of a nominal Trojan soldier, she asks Troilus more or less if their love will stand this test, and he says, in so many words, "Of course mine will, but seriously, don't get it on with any of those Greeks over there because that would definitely suck for me." There is no true love, because there is no trust—there is no trust because love is merely an idea that Troilus and Cressida enjoy (not to mention sex). These are stunted teenagers playing with adult emotions and should be played accordingly. But the lines are delivered with a painful slowness and gravity that belies a lack of understanding in the irony of the text; Troilus was so exhausted from crab-walking after Cressida all over the stage of sand that he no longer had the strength to deliver the much needed frantic nuance to make it all worthwhile.
A group of sextagenerians (or thereabouts), who I had overheard talking about the last time one of them had performed in Troilus and Cressida
(presumably before The Age of Iron even began) walked out at the intermission. "This is absolutely terrible," I heard one remark, hobbling down the aisle with the assistance of a cane. Maybe it was because the players wore S&M-like black leather tunics (bad-ass!), or that Achilies had a mohawk (sweet!), or that they were all tattooed in tribal patterns (hell yeah!), or maybe even offense was taken at casting Patroclus as a woman (calling the nature of Achilles and the former's relationship into question more directly than even Shakespeare did), or the bizarre soundtrack (think of Gladiator
's wheat field flashback death scenes)—or it just may have been the fact that they were expecting Shakespearean drama and weren't prepared for the sleek update or the coarseness that Heywood would add to the script and the toll the physical action would take on the actors.
At least, I think, the audience has a good time watching. The epic tales in this play are time tested and are good stories and it's hard to mess that up, but attention still needs to be paid to the details of the verse and their delivery, no matter what you're mashing together, no matter how extensive and complicated the production. It was only after the war ended (sort of, only because everyone died—I think some leaders might take a cue from this if they were smart, that everyone being dead is not a good reason to finally pull out, or pride the reason to start a war) that Ulysses, played by the show-stealing and astute Steven Skybell, addressed the audience and seemed to get it right. You could see the actual fatigue in the way he stood, the despair in his voice, and the question in his eyes: The war had been fought over now dead men's pride and a woman who shared the same fate, and much like the audience asked itself on the way out the door, so to did Ulysses—What was the point?
(photo credit: T. Charles Erickson)