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Theater Review: Long Beach Shakespeare Company’s Troilus and Cressida

From+left%3A+Beau+Nelson+%28Ajax%29%2C+Leonardo+Lerma+%28Thersites%29+and+Robert+Watson+%28Achilles%29+in+Long+Beach+Shakespeare+Company%E2%80%99s+Troilus+and+Cressida
From left: Beau Nelson (Ajax), Leonardo Lerma (Thersites) and Robert Watson (Achilles) in Long Beach Shakespeare Company’s Troilus and Cressida

From left: Beau Nelson (Ajax), Leonardo Lerma (Thersites) and Robert Watson (Achilles) in Long Beach Shakespeare Company’s Troilus and Cressida

Photo by Jackie Teeple, Two-Eight Photography

Photo by Jackie Teeple, Two-Eight Photography

From left: Beau Nelson (Ajax), Leonardo Lerma (Thersites) and Robert Watson (Achilles) in Long Beach Shakespeare Company’s Troilus and Cressida

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Continuing its ambitious “problem plays” series, the Long Beach Shakespeare Company (LBSC) takes us to the Trojan War with William Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, through Sept. 15. Neither a love story nor a war story, this nonetheless entertaining play shows us what happens when family, friends and enemies live in close proximity under trying circumstances.

The Greek army has been encamped outside of Troy’s walls for 10 years, creating a pressure-cooker of simmering conflict punctuated by occasional negotiations and skirmishes between the two sides. In his director’s notes, Brandon Cutts (who also plays Ulysses) says these incidents are “just another day at the office” for the war-weary characters.

The play thus inverts our experience of the war, as described in Homer’s Iliad. Instead of focusing on Trojan prince Paris and his Greek abductee Helen, the play highlights a romance between Paris’s brother Troilus (Aaron Joseph) and the thoughtful Cressida (Amanda Swearingen). (Shakespeare had added these characters, plus Cressida’s aptly named Uncle Pandarus [Kevin McGrath], based on a Chaucer tale.)

In another inversion, instead of epic battles, the Greek generals engage in petty trickery to get their hero Achilles (a natural Robert Watson) back into battle rather than lounging in his tent with effeminate friend Patroclus (Alexander James Salas). Also contradicting our expectations, when Achilles eventually does act, it’s anti-heroically, his masked crew of “Mermydons” executing his dirty work.

War and love are also intertwined in tragic ways. In the lovers’ story, Cressida is traded off to the Greeks against her will. And Patroclus, who seemingly loves Achilles, engages Troilus’s righteous brother Hector (believably portrayed by Ryan Zimmer) in a mismatched, though well-choreographed swordfight.

Fortunately, Cutts plays up the humor amid the war tragedy, directing the cast in very physical portrayals, including Chadwick Bradbury’s blustery King Agamemnon and Ryanna Dunn’s comically exaggerated General Aeneas. But the comedy is often dark, with characters openly mocking each other and talking behind others’ backs. Hector emerges as the only character impervious to the pettiness.

All 15 actors are very well cast and do justice to their sometimes multiple roles. Swearingen as Cressida stands out for being especially emotive and articulate (helpful in a play with so many words!), as does LBSC veteran Leonardo Lerma, shining as the brash and acerbic Thersites. Beau Nelson surprises with a sensitive portrayal of strongman Ajax, Achilles’s rival, as does Salas as Patroclus.

Staging elements create the atmosphere of war but also (dis)illusion. Colorful sheer curtains help define but obscure rooms in the Troy’s palace and Greek tents. Costumes include battle-wear but also dresses embroidered with Eastern motifs, enhanced by heady, Eastern-tinged, 1960s-era music between scenes. Helen smokes a hookah and a head is paraded on a stick.

Troilus and Cressida thus successfully transports us to a time and place where a grueling and tedious war informs the characters’ choices. Sometimes those choices are made by decree and sometimes by trickery. And sometimes, as in Achilles’s case, they are made just to ensure favorable public opinion, lest he be forgotten. That’s certainly a place we’ve all been before.

Troilus and Cressida continues at the Richard Goad Theatre, 4250 Atlantic Ave., through Sept. 15, with shows Fridays at 8pm (except Sept. 7), Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets are $22.50 ($12.50 for students). For tickets and information, call (562) 997-1494 or visit LBShakespeare.org.

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Theater Review: Long Beach Shakespeare Company’s Troilus and Cressida