Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Age of Iron


From William Shakespeare's Troilus & Cressida and Thomas Heywood's Iron Age. Adapted and directed by Brian Kulick. At Classic Stage Company. (CLOSED)

Apart from some scattered bits of compelling stage moments (a comic character here, a set effect there), the kindest thing critics can say about The Age of Iron is that it is "ambitious." Director Brian Kulick has taken Troilus & Cressida and spliced it with Thomas Heywood's 1610 play Iron Age to offer a complete rendering of the Trojan War. The graft didn't take, apparently. Critics are agitated by the project for a couple reasons. First, it trims Shakespeare to make room for a lesser talent (I imagine Meryl Streep ceding screen time to Megan Fox). Second, the cynicism of Shakespeare's play (perpetual war with no beginning and no ending) has been blunted by Heywood's book-ending so that Kulick may fulfill the arguable achievement of presenting the entire Trojan War on stage in one setting. Dramaturgical experiments aside, the production also appears to suffer from a self-defeating sandbox set design, confusing costumes, histrionic acting, and an alternative casting choice (Patroclus is female) that kills the homo-eroticism of the original.

Theatre Mania B
(Andy Propst) Kulick guides many of his actors to strong performances. Benko's work deepens remarkably as the play moves forward; a moment when she must face both Menelaus (Luis Moreno), the husband she's deserted, and her lover is quite powerful. Steven Skybell offers a gorgeously spoken and exceptionally intelligent turn as Ulysses, and Elliot Villar serves up a commanding portrayal of Hector, which brings to mind a preening sports star. In an intriguing bit of cross-gender casting, Xanthe Elbrick plays Achilles' best friend Patroclus, and she also proves exceptionally moving as Hector's wife, Andromache. Bill Christ as Ajax, the most thuggish of the Greeks, soars to almost heartbreaking heights as this soldier realizes how his compatriots have turned on him. Only Dion Mucciacito's confusingly vague interpretation of Achilles and Graham Winton's one-note rendering of Agamemnon disappoint.

Variety C
(Sam Thielman) One of the great things about seeing Shakespeare staged is that unless you've got the whole canon memorized there will always be some incredible phrase or argument that leaps off the stage at you. Kulick seems to have cast his actors based solely on whether or not they're equal to delivering the bon mots that come their way, and he's found a couple of terrific interpreters in Steven Skybell (Ulysses) and Steven Rattazzi (Thersites, who picks up some of the excised Pandarus' lines). Skybell gets the best monologue in "Troilus" and applies it to the lazy Achilles (Dion Mucciacito) with such force that he makes that scene alone worth the price of admission. Rattazzi also helps perk up some of Heywood's work, which frequently feels a little clunky next to the Bard. One wishes the show's inventiveness outweighed its mistakes, but there are quite a few of the latter. For one thing, Kulick has cast actress Xanthe Elbrick as Patroclus, Achilles' young (male) lover, which undermines "Troilus" being a play about love in all its forms. His removal of Pandarus from the central relationship doesn't really work, either -- it erases the inspiration for some of the most important decisions made by Cressida (a very good Dylan Moore), turning her and Troilus (Finn Wittrock) into a less charismatic Romeo and Juliet.

Time Out New York C
(Adam Feldman) In Rattazzi’s exceptional comic performance, one glimpses an absorbing production that might have been, had director-adaptor Brian Kulick not elected to dualize and duel with his source material ... Kulick has gutted the play of many of its most mordant scenes, replacing them with excerpts, often in cumbersome rhyming couplets, from Thomas Heywood’s inferior 1610 epic The Iron Age. The resulting hybrid is historically wide but dramatically shallow. Many of the actors—including the excellent Finn Wittrock as Troilus, the beautiful Dylan Moore as Cressida and the well-grounded Steven Skybell as Ulysses—manage to offer affecting moments; others are less successful.

Backstage D
(Adam R. Perlman) Rather than develop the classical figures, Kulick paints them in broad comic strokes ... The performances are mostly atrocious, though I've seen enough of these actors do good work before that it's tough to hold them responsible. Watching them, I was reminded more than once of William Finn's tongue-in-cheek "Falsettos" lyric: "Four men marching but never mincing/Four men marching are so convincing." Well, nothing's convincing here, least of all the marching. Neither Menelaus (Luis Moreno) nor Paris (Craig Baldwin) shows any sexual interest in Helen (Tina Benko), yet Kulick denies the play its actual homosexual content by casting an attractive woman (Xanthe Elbrick) as Achilles' beloved Patroclus ... Thankfully, Mark Wendland's massive sandbox set, as boldly lit by Brian H. Scott, gives us something to look at. Their work isn't matched by costumer Oana Botez-Ban.

Village Voice D
(Alexis Soloski) The writing here may help to explain Heywood's obscurity: Paris' seduction employs various clunky couplets, such as, "For let me live, bright Helen to enjoy./Or let me never back re-sail to Troy." Perhaps Heywood should have back re-sailed to his writing desk. The action soon shifts to Troy and to Shakespeare's wonderfully cynical portrait of the drawn-out struggle. But Kulick has cut lots of Shakespeare to make room for more Heywood, and the plight of the young lovers divided barely registers. Kulick has hired some fine actors, though few performances register strongly and miscasting runs rampant: Craig Baldwin is a distinctly unromantic Paris, Elliot Villar an unmacho Hector. Though Brian H. Scott's lighting conjures stark images from Mark Wendland's set, Oana Botez-Ban's wrongheaded costumes trouble one's vision: She dresses the Greeks and Trojans alike and squeezes Tina Benko's Helen into a tawdry beaded cocktail dress. Is that the outfit that launched a thousand ships?

New York Times D
(Charles Isherwood) Were the actors involved naturally commanding and fluent in the language, the results might not be so draggy. But few make strong impressions. Steven Skybell is among the more distinguished classicists; as the smartly politicking Ulysses he is most impressive, although it is hard to believe Shakespeare’s character would participate in a boast-a-thon to win the armor of slain Achilles, as he does in a late scene from Heywood. Bill Christ has his moments as the dunderheaded Ajax. Elliot Villar’s Hector has a convincing fire in his gut. But for the most part the performers go through the motions of battle and retreat, bicker and boast, with little flair and less fluency. After a while you tire of watching them tromping around the clever sandbox set by Mark Wendland.

TheatreMania B 10; Variety C 7; Time Out New York C 7; Backstage D 4; Village Voice D 4; New York Times D 4. TOTAL: 36/6 = 6 (C-)

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