The Age of Iron
nytheatre.com review by Daniel John Kelley
November 19, 2009
The Age of Iron is director Brian Kulick's mashup of Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida and the lesser-known Iron Age by Shakespeare's contemporary Thomas Heywood into an epic ensemble-based retelling of the Trojan War. I'll admit up front that I am not an expert on these texts and how they work together. However, throughout much of the first half of the play, I did wonder about them—who wrote which scene, how they fit together and how they're being played—as there was something about it kept me at a distance. In fact, the first half of The Age of Iron feels almost tongue-in-cheek. It seems, in many instances, as though these famous characters—Helen, Paris, Agamemnon, Achilles—are kidding about the Trojan War.
Now I'm the last person who wants a solemnly reverential production of classic texts, but when Helen gives in to Paris with a playful shrug and an attitude that seems to say "Aw shucks, I guess I'll go with you, boyo," it hardly sets the stage for things to come. Especially when, by contrast, the tone in the second half of The Age of Iron shifts to something less ironic and becomes wholly earnest and deeply moving. In the second half, my mind was no longer on the question of who wrote what, but rather completely invested in this powerful and relevant story. This, and not making light of the Trojan War, seems to be Kulick's intention, and it is unfortunately only realized in part in The Age of Iron.
The story of the play is essentially the whole story of the Trojan War, starting with the abduction of Helen from Sparta and ending with (spoiler alert) the sack of Troy. Included in the play are all the heavy hitters: Troilus and Cressida, the madness of Ajax, the wisdom of Ulysses, getting Achilles to leave his tent, Achilles's battle with Hector, all with the scatological clown Thersites providing a hilarious running commentary. (If you're unfamiliar with the events of the Trojan War, you can get a full summary here.)
As for the cast of The Age of Iron, they are skilled and trained across the board—all the text is communicated with passion, skill, and clarity. Standouts include Bill Christ as the lumbering giant Ajax and Steven Skybell as the wise Ulysses. Christ is imposing and wonderfully earnest as Ajax, and his final soliloquy is beautifully and heartrendingly executed. Skybell is able to show the great passion behind Ulysses's intelligence, and puts across the final speech of the night with a simple gravitas that gives that the moment the weight it needs without beating us over the head. Craig Baldwin and Elliot Villar, on the other hand, seem quite miscast as Paris and Hector, respectively. Baldwin feels strangely asexual and timid as Paris, and Villar is neither large nor imposing, making it hard to believe him as the mightiest of the Trojans.
Once the play does get underway, in its second half, The Age of Iron takes on a life of its own. In the fury of Troilus, the murder of Hector, the Madness of Ajax and, finally, in Ulysses's monologue as all the characters on stage turn to dust, we are reminded how timeless this story and these characters are. As the clown Thersites says, amidst all the chaos: "Wars and Lechery...Nothing else holds fashion!"