Iron Eyes Cody. The name of the fictional Indian chief should strike fear into anyone pioneering enough to explore the wild West of a new production by the Wooster Group, not because of the threat of a tomahawk to the scalp but rather an ambush on the experimental company’s brand of cool and intelligence. Even by Wooster Group standards, Cry, Trojans! presents a baffling mash-up of registers and references, in this remake of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, where Homer’s tale is retold for Medieval audiences, adapted for Elizabethan tastes then restyled as a B movie starring Inuits wearing rubbery effigies of Grecian statuary (yes, you read all of that right). If Cody, by his real name Tony Corti, were alive today, the Italian actor who shed a tear as the heartbroken “Injun” chief of the “Keep America Beautiful” campaign of the early Seventies would be a shoo-in for this latest caricature of Native American culture run amok in the service of a higher good.
In the Wooster Group’s case, that purpose is always focused on dismantling the theater process and exposing its performative tropes. So what are these postmodern theater nomads doing pitching their teepee on reservation lands? The program notes tell of a challenge from an opposing tribe – the Royal Shakespeare Company – to partake in a battle of might and wits by devising different approaches to Shakespeare’s least successful problem play, and how a decision was made to adopt an authentically “American voice” by donning long black wigs and makeshift interpretations of deerskin pants and squaw dress. If a peace pipe was passed at the time, there was something stronger in it than mere tobacco to draw that conclusion.
Cry, Trojans! is a revisiting of the RSC project and, for better or worse (the co-production had a short life in the UK in 2012), it mostly eliminates the Greek side of the Trojan War. This leaves director Elizabeth LeCompte’s cast the freedom to play this story of lovers Troilus (a Trojan warrior) and Cressida (the daughter of a traitorous Trojan general) as a series of cinematic stand-offs and seductions, taken from Hollywood (Splendor in the Grass) and the Canadian film Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner. As one-sided as the slow-moving action becomes, Cry, Trojans! at least offers some escapism via the show’s cinematic sources, which roll on two monitors above the stage, for the actors to carefully echo while listening to the films’ dialogue on ear pieces to rhythm their own delivery.
With so many disparate parts to connect, Folkert de Jong and Delphine Courtillot’s campy props and costumes only add to the noise. To ease the TMI factor, actor Scott Shepherd, who plays a kind of slacker Troilus, relates the production’s backstory in a matter-of-fact drawl before an imaginary campfire, a fake guitar across his knees: from the prologue, LeCompte sends an offhand smoke signal that no preconceived notions apply. Alternately melodramatic (in the Warren Beatty/Natalie Wood-inspired scenes) and phlegmatic (in those echoing a ceremonial Inuit fisticuffs), Cry, Trojans! demonstrates better than any other recent work in the Wooster Group’s oeuvre the particular character of the company’’s “post-epic” theater: Homeric heroism and honor are eons away.
However, it seems something ought to be gained from this instrumentalization of a superficially grasped American “other.” What that could be is never obvious though, and this is where the Wooster Group’s semantic deconstructions become trapped in formal experimentation. The cast, with a constellation of Downtown stars led by Shepherd, Kate Valk (Cressida), Greg Mehrten (her uncle Pandarus) and Ari Fliakos (Hector), delivers Shakespeare’s tragedy with stone-faced consistency. The Indian accoutrements – lacrosse sticks for tomahawks, some requisite war paint, even a little spoken Inuktitut – serve more as a talisman to accessing a time of legends and warriors than a reflection on either the story or the Wooster Group’s source material. But the trade-off feels stilted, and the intentional cliches eventually lose their armor of irony over the show’s almost 2.5 hours.
That the son of Sicilian immigrants could re-imagine himself a Native American chief so well as to become Hollywood’s most famous Indian actor, is the real prologue to Cry, Trojans! Apparently, Native American-ness can still be summed up by braids and moccasins. In this way, and notwithstanding the seriousness of the Wooster Group’s motives, the show provides more to regret than to reflect on. If Iron Eyes Cody were around today, he’d have another reason to shed a crocodile tear in this ersatz frontier of postmodern theater gone native in all the wrong ways.