War is a circus.
So says Fermat's Last Theater Company in its production of Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida (through Aug. 9 at the UW Discovery Building's DeLuca Forum), which is set in a circus ring. The play -- part comedy, part tragedy, part historical drama -- is one of Shakespeare's lesser-known pieces. And as the year-old company points out in the program, this work's near-postmodern critique of war, gender and violence can be confusing.
Set during the Trojan War at a time of uneasy truce, Troilus and Cressida recounts the tale of two would-be lovers. Trojan prince Troilus (Scout Slava-Ross) longs to seduce Cressida (Michael Fleischman). Cressida is in love with Troilus from afar. But she plays coy because, as she states, "Things won are done... Men prize the thing ungain'd more than it is." Troilus employs Cressida's uncle Pandarus (Alex Hancock) to cajole and solicit (read: pander) Cressida on his behalf. Along the way, interesting questions about gender, sex and power are raised. The lovers are no Romeo and Juliet. Mid-play they tumble into bed, unbetrothed and unpromised.
The Trojan War is not merely a subplot, but eventually takes over as the focus of the play. The war is a further complication of "things won are done." The reason for the war -- the beautiful Helen (Alex Roller) -- has already been won. Yet rather than end men's passion, it begins it. Helen has a face that "launches a thousand ships" and a decade of raging violence. Now the war has ground to a halt and threatens to lose momentum. Soldiers debate the point of fighting over Helen in the first place. These queries lend themselves to Fermat's, which seeks to use theater as a tool to examine broader social issues.Fermat's does an exceptionally good job at addressing the bloat in Shakespeare's five-act play. The production is a tight, uninterrupted one hour and 40 minutes. If your primary experiences with Shakespeare are American Players Theatre's more traditional productions, including its 2012 staging of Troilus and Cressida, you'll be impressed by how virile, relevant and urbane Fermat's makes the language and plot. It is not an easy task, and incredibly refreshing to watch. Director Ely Phan doesn't make the most of the interesting setting, though. The great Agamemnon (Isabella Virrueta) is costumed as a ringleader. Sardonic Thersites (played energetically by Ross Shenker) is a mournful clown. But in the end, the circus is little more than backdrop. Only a few scenes -- such as the final battle, staged hilariously as thumb- and arm-wrestling matches -- are enlivened by the allegory.
Fermat's genderqueers this production, casting female actors in traditional male roles such as Troilus, Agamemnon and Diomedes. None of these choices feel truly resonant or shed new light on the production. But casting Helen as not just a man in drag but as a drag queen feels inspired. It raises multiple questions about sex, seduction, ownership and power. And raising questions is what Fermat's is all about.