Theater: Taut "Troilus;" Mangy "Cats"

08/09/2016 11:01 pm ET

 

 

TROILUS & CRESSIDA ** 1/2 out of ****

CATS ** out of **** 

 

 

Troilus & Cressida is not performed very often and reading it for the first time, it’s easy to see why. It’s late period Shakespeare but unlike the hard to categorize triumphs of The Tempest and A Winter’s Tale, T&C seems...unfinished, odd, unsatisfying. It doesn’t have lyricism or insight or great speeches to make up for the rushed plot. Are we sure Shakespeare was even done with it?

Happily, this Shakespeare In The Park production offers up a solid version that makes good sense of what might be inconsistencies. It also papers over the rush of tiresome battle scenes near the end with a lot of noisy theatrics that allow the actors onstage to run around and play soldier.

Apparently, T&C is more popular nowadays ― if at all ― as an anti-war play. Productions often use this story of the siege of Troy (you do remember your Iliad, right?)  to illustrate the futility of war or some such thing. Not here, not really. This T&C makes the war personal. The combatants indulge in the once romantic idea that there was honor in war, offering manly praise for their enemies, sharing a drink with rivals before meeting the next day on the battlefield and so on. 

If you haven’t read Homer lately, let me refresh. T&C begins years into the siege of Troy. Helen was kidnapped by the Trojan Paris and the Greeks have surrounded Troy, demanding her back. Helen and Paris have tired of one another but honor refuses to let Troy accede to a demand made at the point of a sword. Meanwhile, Troilus has fallen for Cressida, despite knowing her father has gone over to the enemy. He woos her, seemingly without success. Actually, Cressida loves him but knows men only value that which they must strive for mightily. Eventually, they fall into each other’s arms and declare eternal love...only to be immediately separated when her father arranges for Cressida to be delivered to his new patrons, the Greeks. Troilus is torn in two.

At the same time, the Greek Achilles can’t be roused to battle. The wily Ulysses schemes to bring the somnolent hero’s blood to a boil and won’t stop at anything ― including murdering Patroclus, the lover of Achilles ― to do so. He succeeds and with Achilles on fire and Troilus feeling betrayed, the bloody battle all have feared comes to pass.

 

 

That’s the basic plot and it can be played in many ways. The generals can seem pompous and indifferent to suffering. The entire campaign can seem a homoerotic love-fest. Or war can be hell, even with the best of intentions. But this version is rooted in the particular and personal. The vaguely modern setting (including PowerPoint presentations to discuss combat) are used nicely to clue us in to the two sides. The gay romance of Achilles and Patroclus is matter of fact, with the other soldiers neither celebrating or damning it. 

The best move by director Daniel Sullivan and his team was with the tension between Troilus and Cressida. In three quick scenes they declare their love, are driven apart and then Troilus immediately watches what he sees as her betrayal with a new love. This confusing text is made clear here, with Cressida creepily threatened with rape on all sides when dropped into the Greek camp. She chooses the lesser of two evils with a reluctant heart, though Troilus ― being a man and more especially a man depicted by Shakespeare ― is easily fooled into assuming the worst. It turns one of the play’s “problems” into a source of strength. 

With Troilus enraged, he prods Hector into brutal behavior on the field of combat. Similarly, Achilles is so enraged by the death of Patroclus (a playful Tom Pecinka) he happily has an enemy disemboweled in the most cowardly manner. Still, this late play burst of cruel behavior isn’t so much anti-war as a reflection of how terribly men can behave when their hearts are black with anger. 

I doubt anyone could make the last act anything but a tiresome series of battles, but they are handled with at least a little dispatch. This is truly an ensemble work, though Andrew Burnap made a pretty dashing Troilus; picture Chris Pine’s younger brother and you’ll be on the mark. He was well-matched by Ismenia Mendes as Cressida. John Glover was a fine matchmaker, though his descent into sickness and despair felt too overblown. Many others were solid: Bill Heck as Hector, Alex Breaux reprising his dumb guy routine from Red Speedo to humorous effect as Ajax, the wily Corey Stoll as Ulysses, a sleazy Zach Appelman as Diomedes and the great John Douglas Thompson as Agamemnon.

Late addition Louis Cancelmi was lost as Achilles, however, delivering a performance from an entirely different production and one that made no sense of the character or his role in this show. It kept this good production of a flawed play from being great. But for a work filled with problems and very little to recommend it, this is about as good as you’re likely to see for a good long while.

CATS ** out of **** 

 

I’ve been waiting 35 years for a revival of Cats, ever since my mom refused to go see “a musical about animals” as she put it when I made my first trip to London in 1982. (Happy ending ― she let me pick Noises Off instead, one of the funniest comedies of all time and still a cherished theatrical memory.) I never saw Cats in New York City since I didn’t move there until the 1990s and who wants to see a show a decade into its run? But I had the cast album and frankly it’s Andrew Lloyd Webber’s best. He had his best collaborator (whatever happened to Tom Eliot?), the songs were consistently catchy and that “Memory” was a killer until it got entombed by success. 

So a new production of Cats? Sign me up! unfortunately, this is NOT a new revival of Cats, a presentation of what was once the biggest hit of all time seen with new eyes by a new creative team eager to make a case for a work pilloried by success and sniping. Instead, it’s literally a revival. I never saw the original but those tourism ads for New York City apparently seared the original costumes into my mind. And here we have...the original costumes, the original sets (but less so), the original choreography (mostly), the original everything except the spark of excitement and a killer original cast led in NYC by the great Betty Buckley. One imagines they pulled down a trunk from the attic, dusted off those leg warmers and leotards and said, “This’ll do! Not so bad at all!” 

But it is bad. This Cats feels like the tenth touring production playing the hinterlands, not a fresh Broadway show bursting with talent and a desire to prove itself. My guest actually saw the original, before everyone sneered at it. Memory is awfully unforgiving in the theater (”I saw Larry Olivier playing Lear and let me tell you....”). Indeed, my friend remembered a crackerjack cast bursting with talent, one song flying right into the next and then the first act was over in a blur. The second act was just as sensational, leading to that moment when Buckley broke your heart and it was over. Great dancing, great talent and no, not a story to reckon with but by god it was fun.

Cats truly is Lloyd Webber’s boldest show, both an old fashioned revue and a bold new environmental work more akin to downtown theater, with its oversized set spilling out into the audience. Yes, what followed Cats learned all the wrong lessons but it was adventurous and new and has more in common with Sleep No More and other experiential shows than most of those shows would like to admit. (Heck, the upcoming Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 has all the hipster cred one could hope for but it owes a debt to Cats too.)

I knew we were unlikely to see the revival it deserved when most of the original team was back on board. One could hardly expect director Trevor Nunn to radically rethink the biggest blockbuster hit of all time (at the time). I mean, why mess with success? But the set is less environmental and bold than before (props line the wall but don’t quite spill out the way they once did ― it’s more TGIFridays than boldly Broadway). Tunnels lead under the stage but are sadly underutilized. The costumes ― especially the leg warmers ― date it tremendously.

Obviously having a smaller orchestra is a real shame. Further, the absolute first step in revitalizing Cats would be to dump the dated, 1980s synth sound that predominated. Here it remains defiantly in place, though that riff that recurs again and again when momentous events are about to take place is still admittedly effective. 

The dancing is energetic and while it’s essentially a revue with one solo number after another, the strongest point of the show was always the group numbers. God help the performers who give their all and presumably have a chiropractor on call backstage. A curse on those who mock the performers in what must be one of the most physically demanding shows on Broadway.

But it must be said they rarely catch fire. One number stood out precisely because it did catch fire and give a glimpse of the show at its best all those years ago. Fittingly, it’s a number about a cat prodded to relive his glory days. Both Sara Jean Ford and Christopher Gurr brought poignancy and charm to “Gus The Theatre Cat.” Too often, we have the likes of the drawn out “Magical Mister Mistoffelees,” in which a presumably magical cat is not given one bit of impressive magic to perform, or act two’s “Macavity The Mystery Cat, “ which laboriously details a crime lord of a cat when we already had two cat burglars featured in act one.

The final insult is tossing in a pop star to belt out the show’s defining number “Memory.” I watched Leona Lewis triumph on TV in The X Factor in the UK and consider her a genuine talent, though often burdened with weak songs throughout her career. I was rooting for her, but she most definitely is not an actress. Hearing her defiantly belt out “Memory” as if it were “I Will Survive” instead of a moment of heartbreaking vulnerability turns the show’s peak to a trough. Adding insult to injury, she is barely costumed as a cat at all, walking out on stage looking almost nothing like anyone else around her.

I say all of this in DEFENSE of the show created in 1981. It has a durable score. It was groundbreaking. Watching it in performance, I was struck by how old fashioned and yet boldly new it must have seemed at the time. You can’t help but marvel at how frequently it focuses on the old and the aging, the vulnerable folk tossed aside by a world that has no need for them anymore. This in a family friendly blockbuster show? Indeed, there is a sophisticated, nuanced, and solid case to be made for Cats. Unfortunately, we may well have to wait another 35 years before anyone can make it.

THEATER OF 2016

Employee Of The Year (Under The Radar at Public) ***
Germinal (Under The Radar At Public) *** 1/2
Fiddler On The Roof 2015 Broadway revival with Danny Burstein ** 1/2
Skeleton Crew ***
Noises Off (2016 Broadway revival) ** but *** if you’ve never seen it before
The Grand Paradise ***
Our Mother’s Brief Affair * 1/2
Something Rotten ***
Sense & Sensibility (Bedlam revival) *** 1/2
Broadway & The Bard * 1/2
Prodigal Son **
A Bronx Tale: The Musical **
Buried Child (2016 revival w Ed Harris) **
Nice Fish ***
Broadway By The Year: The 1930s at Town Hall ***
Hughie **
Pericles (w Christian Camargo) * 1/2
Straight ** 1/2
Eclipsed ***
Red Speedo ***
The Royale ** 1/2
Boy ****
The Robber Bridegroom ***
Hold On To Me, Darling ***
Blackbird ** 1/2
Disaster! *
The Effect ** 1/2
Dry Powder ** 1/2
Head Of Passes ** 1/2
Broadway By The Year: The 1950s *** 1/2
The Crucible (w Ben Whishaw) ***
Bright Star **
She Loves Me (w Laura Benanti) ***
Antlia Pneumatica ** 1/2
RSC at BAM: Richard II (w David Tennant) ** 1/2
RSC at BAM: Henry IV Part I and II (w Antony Sher) ***
RSC at BAM Henry V (w Alex Hassell) ** 1/2
Nathan The Wise ** 1/2
The Father **
American Psycho **
Waitress ** 1/2
Fully Committed ** 1/2
Long Day’s Journey Into Night ***
A Streetcar Named Desire ***
Tuck Everlasting **
War **
Paramour * 1/2

Troilus & Cressida (Shakespeare in the Park) ** 1/2

Cats (on Broadway, 2016 revival) **

 

 

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Thanks for reading. Michael Giltz is the founder and CEO of the forthcoming website BookFilter, a book lover’s best friend. Trying to decide what to read next?Head to BookFilter! Need a smart and easy gift? Head to BookFilter? Wondering what new titles came out this week in your favorite categories, like cookbooks and mystery and more? Head to BookFilter! It’s a website that lets you browse for books online the way you do in a physical bookstore, provides comprehensive info on new releases every week in every category and offers passionate personal recommendations every step of the way. It’s like a fall book preview or holiday gift guide — but every week in every category. He’s also the cohost of Showbiz Sandbox, a weekly pop culture podcast that reveals the industry take on entertainment news of the day and features top journalists and opinion makers as guests. It’s available for free on iTunes. Visit Michael Giltz at his website and hisdaily blog. Download his podcast of celebrity interviews and his radio show, also called Popsurfing and also available for free on iTunes.

Note: Michael Giltz is provided with free tickets to shows with the understanding that he will be writing a review. All productions are in New York City unless otherwise indicated.

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