Oh, Helen, No: Cry, Trojans!

 

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Review by JK Clarke

 

The fundamental problem with Cry, Trojans!, The Wooster Group’s re-working of Shakespeare’s seldom seen Troilus and Cressida (which itself is a distilled version of The Illiad), is that rather than focusing on the central messages of the story (the nature of love and social hierarchy), one comes away wondering if what they have just witnessed is appropriate. Or whether, in fact, it is culturally offensive.

Unknown-3The issue in question stems from the production’s portrayal of the Trojans (from whose viewpoint the story is told) as Native Americans, complete with leather chaps, what I thought was face paint (but was actually microphones taped to the cheeks of the actors  – easily mistaken for white painted stripes) , a teepee, stereotypical “Indian” whoops and dance movements and even a papoose strapped to a mother’s back. Were this an all-Native American cast it could be an interesting twist. But it is not. How then does the much-revered Wooster Group differ from Johnny Depp in his controversial portrayal of Tonto in the 2013 film version of The Lone Ranger? Delving deeper, does the ethnic portrayal and perpetuation of cultural stereotypes enhance or augment the play’s message in any way? If the answer is no, and it seems to be, then why do it? What’s next? Macbeth in blackface? King Lear in coolie hats?

Unknown-4But, let’s just argue for a second that there’s a deeper, more profound message in the production that we’re just not getting. If that’s the case, then fault still lies with the company for not getting that message across. Surely the hordes who left at intermission during a recent production were either offended or just so befuddled that they couldn’t take another minute. The chaos of the stage production did little to ease the audience into the complexity of Shakespeare’s language. Which is a shame, really, because the cast is quite revered and competent, particularly Scott Shepherd (Troilus), who has a remarkable command of language and Shakespeare in particular. That he chose to speak in a strange, high-pitched voice that can only be described as cartoonish and from North Dakota, befuddles still further. It almost felt as if he were playing games with a role that bored him.

From a technical standpoint, the play has brilliant moments. Director Elizabeth LeCompte has assembled a production punctuated by a sound (Bruce Odland), live sound (Bobby McElver, Max Bernstein), lighting (Jennifer Tipton) and video projection (Andrew Schneider) spectacle. An avant-garde, multi-media extravaganza that even features a video screen playing a loop of smoke coming from the top of the teepee; and then there’s the vintage film clips on stage monitors which mimic the action on stage. If Burning Man had a Shakespeare festival, Cry, Trojans! would be exactly the sort of play they’d produce. But, like so many aspects of that genre, the accent is on spectacle, the attitude is smug and content is left wanting.

The question, then, once we wade through all the pomposity, is whether there’s a story and a message underneath it all. Apart fromt the bones of the narrative, Cry, Tojans! doesn’t deliver here, either. One almost feels—nay even hopes—a message is being delivered over our heads with the subtext, “We’re so much smarter than you, so too bad if you don’t get it.” But the first obligation of theater should be to convey the story, whatever that may be, to the audience. Which just doesn’t happen here. Whether it’s attempting to do too much and overshooting the mark, or merely wallowing in (somewhat insensitive) self-indulgence, Cry, Trojans! delivers a frustrating and disappointing evening of theater.

Cry, Tojans! Through April 19 at St. Ann’s Warehouse (29 Jay Street, Brooklyn). www.stannswarehouse.org

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