Now in their sixth year, Los Angeles’ Porters of Hellsgate Theater Company has had a near religious devotion to the works of Shakespeare. This very young company, both in terms of the organization’s age as well as that of many of its resident artists, has touched on most of the major comedies and dramas and has kicked off this year with the famously thorny and relatively infrequently performed Troilus and Cressida. The thorniness comes from a text filled with often incongruent broad comedy and far weightier material about the transience of love, peace, and other aspects of the human condition. Not that Shakespeare didn’t balance these themes well in most of his plays, but here the combination can seem off. The lovers in the title, Trojans both, have relatively less stage time than the ongoing machinations and complications in the long standing war with the Greeks that’s going on around them. Hector’s battles with the likes of Ajax, Achilles, and Agamemnon and the debate over the merits of their conflict and the moral laws that define it take up far more territory. It’s interesting and surprisingly contemporary material, but Shakespeare has placed it in a rather cumbersome package.
The Porters’ Artistic Director, Charles Pasternak, who helmed this production, decides to go with the stronger cards the author has dealt him by emphasizing a particularly testosterone driven tale of war. The warring Trojans and Greeks posture and shout. And everything is wrapped up with an underlining gesture to make it clear this is first and foremost a play about the tragedy of war and moral ambivalence that it can spring from. Romance and heartbreak, though present, are given a back seat and the comedy is whittled down to something a little bleaker. The fool Thersites, played by Gus Krieger, spends most of the play in a leather half-mask strapped to his head which makes much of his dialog a bit more creepy than outright funny. The fight scenes between the young handsome actors playing the soldiers were some of the more convincing I’ve seen in this size of a production with Matt Calloway’s Achilles and Napoleon Tavale’s Hector bouncing off of the walls during their hand-to-hand combat. In this case, having a young and particularly attractive, athletic cast overall paid off in terms of physicality.
And despite some odd choices, like a mincing, effeminate Pandarus and a just two notches over the top Ajax, the show as a whole works well, maintaining focus and smooth pacing. And there were a number of very engaging performances as well, in particular from Thomas Bigley as Ulysses whose portrayal of the thinking and strategizing Greek warrior quickly became the centerpiece of the whole evening. He commanded attention through voice and manner in a show where action was more typically the order of the day. I was also taken with the space that many of the women in the cast managed to carve out in the show even when they frequently are put in the position of reflecting on the horrors of their men’s war. Taylor Fisher’s Cressida was sensible and believable, and Eliza Kiss’s Helen, who also served prominently in both the Prologue and Epilogue, was memorable. Does the Porters’ production milk everything it can out of Shakespeare’s play? Probably not, but then never being able to do so is part of the glory of Shakespeare. Pasternak and his fellow Porters deliver a solid, watchable, and compelling war story with Troilus and Cressida that deserves to be seen by a wide audience. It runs in the valley through February 19.