Cutting Ball Theater's Melrose directs Shakespeare's bitterest play at Stanford

Shakespeare's 'Troilus and Cressida' is set in a world that is demoralized, treacherous and morally exhausted – modern-day Iraq?

Troilus and Cressida

Troilus and Cressida is an oddity in Shakespeare’s oeuvre:  the wickedly funny play leaves a bad taste in the mouth, unrelieved by a happy ending or any purgative, expiating deaths.

Chaucer retold the ancient Greek story with a medieval spin, but by the time the Bard penned his play, the Counterreformation had left a wake of duplicity, intrigue and moral exhaustion.

Kind of like today.  Rob Melrose, the critically acclaimed artistic director and co-founder of San Francisco’s Cutting Ball Theater, isn’t writing a new poem – but he is directing a new production, with a slightly different spin: it’s set in modern-day Iraq.

Melrose’s Troilus and Cressida will be performed at 8 p.m. on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, May 13-15, at Roble Studio Theater. (Currently, the Friday show is sold out.)

The production is offered in collaboration with SiCa and the New York's Public Theater, the nation's foremost theatrical producer of Shakespeare and new work, with 42 Tony Awards, 149 Obies, 40 Drama Desk Awards, 24 Lucille Lortel Awards and four Pulitzer Prizes to its credit.

Visiting partners from the New York theater include Artistic Director Oskar Eustis and Barry Edelstein, director of the Shakespeare Lab. 

Shakespeare’s mordant play highlights the petty, selfish, and barbaric preoccupations of demoralized warriors in a prolonged war, as purposeless as it is seemingly endless.

Like some military leaders today, Greek soldiers were questioning motives – in Shakespeare's play, why they were going to war over a woman they stole.

“As we were running up to war of Iraq, we could hear most of these arguments,” said Melrose, recalling George W. Bush’s claim that “Saddam Hussein tried to kill my dad” and the young people who joined the military after 9/11, feeling that they’d found a cause they could die for. Soon, he said, other voices dissented:  “This is just about oil, it isn’t honorable at all.”

“The reasons for the war aren’t the reasons leaders are saying they are for.  It’s that disjunction this play speaks to,” said Melrose.

While Melrose had considered Iraqi and American parallels, he said Eustis suggested “a pithy strategy for the play.”

“At the end of the day, we wanted to make the play immediate.  We’re not trying to be clever," said Melrose.  "I don’t want the audience to have to translate from Troilus and Cressida to George Bush.”

However, Melrose nevertheless added a uniquely postmodern touch by reinterpreting the bitter love story at the ruthless heart of the play.  Traditionally, Cressida is portrayed as an archetypal emblem of faithlessness, but Melrose sees her as a pragmatist, who knows which way the wind is blowing and uses her sexuality for protection. She is in the position of all women who become wartime prey.

The play has an additional special resource:  The cast features a Stanford student who is a former Marine to portray the Greek warrior Ajax.  Dustin Barfield served in the Marines for four years before coming to Stanford, including the initial military campaign in Iraq.

“My experience with combat, combat training, and even everyday life in the tents was used in the course of the play,” said Barfield.  “The play touches on combat heavily, but also on the waiting game that troops have to play when at war.”

Melrose said Barfield’s involvement was “kind of exciting for us.”

“Usually for a bunch of people in a theater production, we’re going on movies and our notions of what a battle might be like," said Melrose.  Barfield's participation "lent incredible authenticity to the process.”

Barfield’s contributions were subtle, but important. In Shakespeare’s play, for example, the Trojan warrior Hector halts the action of combat when his opponent drops his sword. 

“How does this translate to an M16 rifle?” asked Melrose.  “Dustin told us that M16s jam all the time.  When they jam, you have to step out of the battle and unjam them.”

For Barfield, the characters on the Trojan battlefield were familiar:  "Each player in the play has a personality, as does each warrior in Iraq and Afghanistan, and my experience with so many of those men gave me an opportunity to match the personality of each character in the play with a likely set of mannerisms.

“As far as Ajax goes, I just tried to combine the most aggressive, angry characters from my military experience, and trim their intelligence a bit,” said Barfield. “The result? A dense, violent alpha-male – Ajax.”

Tickets are available online: