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Friday, March 15, 2002

Arts & Letters

Cressida Among the Greeks

Cressida Among the Greeks, written by David Foley, directed by Samuel Buggeln, February 15-March 3, Ohio Theater, New York.




The passion and travails of Troilus and Cressida we will remember, if at all, through Chaucer and Shakespeare rather than the ancients Greeks, for whom the story, we think, had a distinctly secondary importance. This is the mythical love story that Robert Graves will not fail to include in his Greek anthology, citing disparate and lesser-known sources, and which remains decidedly small-time compared to the great sagas in Homer and the tragedians. Yet, a recent New York performance of an original play, Cressida Among the Greeks, may help us to place the Shakespearean tale more comfortably among its ancient forebears, as well as to provide a worthwhile and entertaining view into this background material.

The choice of title omits the more familiar “Troilus” and focuses expectation on the Greek camp rather than Troy, a point only partly borne out by the play. While Cressida (and her uncle Pandarus) certainly has a more prominent and interesting role here, the family dynamics at Troy prove much more dramatic than the Greek tents and campfires on the beach. The court at Troy, in Foley’s envisioning of it, has Priam (appropriately played by a former academic) succumbing to Alzheimer’s, a teenage Cassandra with a striking resemblance to Winona Ryder, Hecuba dauntlessly commanding both her children and the Trojan army, and Shakespeare’s glib Pandarus playing a queen to the Queen. Roll over, House of Atreus, here is the mythical Greek family at its dysfunctional best.

While Foley is described as “channeling the ancients” in this play, the story is largely out of Shakespeare: Priam’s youngest son, Troilus, falls in love with Cressida, the daughter of Calchas, the Trojan prophet who has betrayed Troy and gone over to serve Agamemnon and the Greeks. Cressida, at first happily confined to her own quarters in Troy, is tempted out and into romance through the machinations of her uncle Pandarus, who pleads the case of the lovesick Troilus. Calchas, in an effort to regain his daughter, persuades the Greeks to ransom the captured Trojan Antenor in exchange for Cressida, who is eventually taken in by the Greek Diomedes. Troilus’ ensuing jealousy and death become the foreground events, displacing the pending destruction of Troy itself.

In a play of this sort, as so often, it is the language and acting that sustain or bury it. Thankfully, Foley writes in living speech and, but for several moments of bathos and period cliché, the play’s the thing. His Cressida, nobly and finely acted by Danielle Skraastad, has a stiff-necked dignity and sharpness of speech that is finally (though too quickly and easily) undone by the temptations of young Troilus. The stand-out third person in the romance, Pandarus, played in a campy, downtown way by Michael McKenzie, nearly gives pimping a good name with his witty shading of the part in a distinctly Nathan Lane inflection. Troy’s great maternal figure, Hecuba (Cristine McMurdo-Wallis), forced into the role of king due to Priam’s dementia, harried by her doom-singing daughter, and frustrated by the wearying ebb and flow of the ten-year-war, seems to share more of the cunning character of a Clytemnestra or Macbeth. She is transformed prematurely into the infamous bitch of Kynesema, not by the terror of the Greeks but by the very real, and surprisingly vernacular, labors of holding her family and city together. Meanwhile, the raven-haired Cassandra (Katie Byxbe Pessin), played as a dispirited and moody adolescent draped in an oversized coat of sackcloth, continually shadows the play’s progress, punctuating scene after scene with her darkly boding prophecies.

Troilus (played by Bryant Richards) has little hope of standing out amid these striking personalities. While he bears the name of the city itself, his youthful character is as bland as both his complexion and acting. Any but the most generous viewer would see the youth’s unbearably pure and naïve affection for Cressida as mere puppy love, unlikely to inspire comparison with an Antony or Romeo. Perhaps Foley’s Troilus is meant to make precisely this kind of mark, however – that is, a heroic purity that stands in strong contradistinction to the endlessly compromising and very human nature of Pandarus, Calchas, and, finally, Cressida herself. Where everyone is concerned with duty to the city, or just duty to oneself, Troilus’ duty is to remain absolute and true to his love, however puerile that passion may seem. (This may be one reason why Troilus alone has real sympathy for Cassandra, the other markedly adolescent figure in the play.) In this sense, if the play really wants to be placed “among the Greeks,” it is Euripides above all whom Foley must be “channeling.” For Troilus resembles no one so much as the doomed adolescent heroes of late Euripides, such as Orestes, Makaria, or the adamant Pentheus of The Bacchae.

In spite of this resemblance, the real feeling of tragedy in the play is generated not so much from Troilus’ broken love and Cressida’s betrayal, as from the great city’s appointed fall. Though we are briefly able to focus on this “background” love affair within the Trojan saga, its diminutive state is overwhelmed in the end by the traditional foreground of Troy’s destruction. In a moment of gravity and pomp, Hecuba describes the city as the center of the civilized world. Troy is the place where the human collective and its achievements are most in evidence. As for the Greeks, they “yell” and “smell.” It may be that the more we see of angry Hecuba, faltering Priam, distracted Troilus, titillating Pandarus, and the high-pitched Cassandra, we feel that this center of civilization is not all that grand, as Pound said of twentieth-century Europe, but rather just an old bitch gone in the teeth. Nevertheless, it’s with Troy and the city’s fall that we are ultimately preoccupied. Cassandra’s repeated and graphic warnings of the city’s undoing, of its royal family’s dispersal, and the horrors of capture, provide the play with real moments of tragic vision.

One respects Foley for making such a difficult argument for himself in this play, casting his young hero as so romantically naïve and his heroine as so insistently commonsensical. Troilus is perhaps ennobled in his choice to fight against circumstance and regain his beloved, while Calchas, Pandarus, and even Cressida urge all-too-human compromise. The young man stands briefly in an uncompromising heroic light, but it may be that Cressida, who is decidedly unheroic, is the more interesting and maybe more admirable example. By working with such “background” material from Greek myth and saga, as he has done now and in the past (The Murders at Argos, performed at the 2000 New York Fringe Festival), Foley allows us to see the ancients with different eyes and at a different angle.

Avi Sharon is a classicist and translator of ancient and modern Greek, Italian and Hebrew, living in New York City.
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