One of Shakespeare's most difficult and unforgiving plays, Troilus and Cressida is rife with abrupt tone shifts, demoralizing characters and underwhelming plot twists. Jumping in halfway through the Trojan war, the play follows a pair of young lovers - Troilus, a Trojan prince, and Cressida, a Trojan maid whose father has abandoned them for the Greeks. Alternating viewpoints between the enemy camps, the story charts how Cressida's fidelity to Troilus falters once she's forcibly sent away to the Greeks. Not quite a tragedy, definitely not a comedy, the story vexes audiences with its unresolved conflicts and unsatisfying conclusion.
Cry, Trojans!, an ambitious adaptation from the experimental, Manhattan-based Wooster Group, attempts to offset the play's structural shortcomings with visually arresting concept design (by Dutch artists Folkert de Jong and Delphine Courtillot) modeled on a fantastical early American tribe. However, these abstract signifiers introduce ambiguity, which tends to reinforce rather than unpack the play's inaccessibility.
Directed by founding member Elizabeth LeCompte, the production grew out of a collaboration for the London Olympics with the Royal Shakespeare Company in which the Brits played the Greeks. The L.A. version - Wooster Group's first world premiere at REDCAT, after many other presentations at the venue - trims the action and refocuses the story on Troy, with masked cast members doubling as Greek warriors. Video monitors project clips from sources such as the heady Natalie Wood/Warren Beatty romance Splendor in the Grass, the 1998 Native American film Smoke Signals, and The Fast Runner, a 2001 film featuring an entirely Inuit cast.
Radical adaptations work well when they depart from or subvert overly familiar source material. The under-produced Troilus creates enough comprehension challenges on its own, especially since Shakespeare's account already includes twists on events detailed in the better-known Iliad. The production's choice to layer symbolism on top of these dramatic difficulties creates complication without offering illumination.
For instance, the Trojan armor molded with human faces is visually stunning, and evocative, but it's unclear of what. Are they intended as skins of fallen enemies?
The actors keep a weather eye trained on the monitors, timing their gestures to sync with the onscreen action. But from a distance the pixelated figures are difficult to detect, and the parallels feel forced and inorganic, creating a sense of dissociation among the characters in a scene.
The result is a disjointed staging that feels disengaged and disengaging, romance and carnage more conceptual than flesh and blood.
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The Wooster Group at REDCAT, 631 W. Second St., dwntwn.; Tue.-Sat., 8:30 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through March 9. (213) 237-2800; www.redcat.org.
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