Vexing may be an apt word to describe Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, but if you attended the Henley Street Theater’s production of Bootleg Shakespeare, then punk may be another equally apt word.
“Troilus and Cressida, that most vexing and ambiguous of Shakespeare’s plays, strikes the modern reader as a contemporary document—its investigation of numerous infidelities, its criticism of tragic pretensions, above all, its implicit debate between what is essential in human life and what is only existential are themes of the twentieth century.” Joyce Carol Oates, from her essays entitled “The Tragedy of Existence: Shakespeare’s “Troilus and Cressida”
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Vexing may be an apt word to describe Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, but if you attended the Henley Street Theater’s production of Bootleg Shakespeare, then punk may be another equally apt word. This year’s play was the third annual Bootleg performance directed by James Ricks, and before everything began he explained to the audience that the actors are given thirty days to practice. “Anything can happen,” the audience was told.
The play opens with the sound of drums and guitar (provided by the band Drawn A Blank), the bootleg equivalent of trumpets. Well, this production opens there. Bootleg begins in the middle of Troilus and Cressida, actually. The play is about Troilus and Cressida, their tragic relationship, and the Trojan War. Troilus is a Trojan prince, Cressida the daughter of a Trojan priest. There’s Pandarus, Cressida’s uncle, and there’s also Achilles (the Greek prince with the heel problem), his lover Patroclus, Ajax (another prince), Nestor (old sagely lord), and a whole bunch of other Greeks and Trojans as well. It’s vexing, remember? Vexing and ambiguous!
The Barksdale stage (soon to be home to A Year with Frog and Toad) is sparse and a blank canvas for the jeans, black boots, and spiked hair that the actors don to set the mood. Lighting changes are minimal, and the audience relies heavily on the spirit of the acting to fill the room.
Troilus, played by John Mincks, appears wearing a ripped grey vest, tattered skinny jeans, black chucks, and a threatening red plastic baseball bat. Soon after, we also meet Pandarus played by Daryl Clark Philips. He is not so punk (he is a priest, after all, and not a Judas one*) in his khakis and plain button-down shirt, but he’s still full of innuendo-tinged one-liners as he speaks with his coy niece Cressida. Coy and sassy in her torn fishnet stockings, spiked hair, and black lipstick, Cressida (played by Zoe Speas) looks the part of the pining punk (and also a little like Neil Gaiman’s Sandman character, Death).
Next, we meet some of the Greeks. The King of the Greeks, Agamemnon, is a grey-and-pink-spiked-haired Cynde Liffick, bedecked in a black leather coat, ripped red shirt and pants, boots, and one sparkly white glove. Agamemnon is definitely the stern leader type, though willing to listen to the ideas of others like maroon-haired Ulysses (Brendan Titley) with his handy whiteboard, and elderly Nestor with many pieces of wise aged advice (played delightfully by Liz Blake-White; the subtle silent shuffling about is funny every time, and the beard–either God’s or Santa’s–is a hoot). Ajax (Foster Solomon) is also particularly amusing, and perhaps the easiest character to keep track of name-wise since the A in his name is defined with the anarchist symbol.
Plans are made regarding the crown, and the Greek group plans to do something with the Trojan group.
When we first meet Achilles and Patroclus (Joe Carson and Dean Knight, respectively) they are draped over each other to the amusement of the audience, and Achilles brandishes not a baseball bat but instead baby powder. His plaid flannel bathrobe is quite fetching.
So, at some point, we come around to Troilus and Cressida getting it on, only to discover moments later that Cressida is to become a prisoner of war in exchange for one of the Greek prisoners of war, thus ripping her from Troilus’ tattoed arms and into the awaiting hands of Diomedes (Jeff Cole) and his red mohawk. Woe! Yet despite their love, Troilus spies on her later to see what appears to be Cressida being coy with Diomedes! Cue more woe, and now betrayal most foul! Later, to the amusement of all, one can see the Troilus + Cressida heart tattoo on Troilus’ chest has been savagely crossed out with a large X, a testament to his hurt.
One of the best parts about Bootleg Shakespeare is the fact that the performance is not simply line after line. There are multiple musical elements, including songs by the groovy Pandarus and Thersites (the Jack Black-esque Fool, played with much wit and cheek by James Reese). How many versions of Shakespeare include a punk rendition of “Happiness is a Warm Gun”? There’s even a short fight scene that suddenly turns into a group flash dance, and kisses that are prefaced by depositing chewing gum (young people these days!) and gummy worms.
Troilus and Cressida is not exactly an easy play to follow, but this doesn’t mean it’s not enjoyable to the fullest–unless you do not enjoy watching people whack at each other with plastic baseball bats while wearing underpants and Roman mohawk helmets. It takes concentration to follow the Bard sometimes, but if the audience is continually having a good laugh, then I think it’s safe to say the players are doing an admirably wonderful job.
There are a lot of characters who could be mixed up with one another (I hope that’s not just me, anyway), and many things going on at once, but that said, Troilus and Cressida’s punk equivalent is full of humor, innuendo (it’s Shakespeare after all), and facial piercings a-plenty. When Hector (Matt Hackman) is finally slain in the end by the mob of nerf-gun-wielding Achilles et al., the audience knows that it has beheld a masterpiece of pure bawdy Shakespeare. Part of the beauty of Shakespeare is that the plays can be produced in almost any setting to great success: whether it’s a medieval castle, windy moors, or a club scene with a rock band, Shakespeare can be enjoyed and re-cast in a new light again and again.
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* Okay, not a punk joke, more a heavy metal joke