Modern warfare

Many know the face of war and its devastating effects on all aspects of humanity. That's why Rob Melrose has set his Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of Shakespeare's "Troilus and Cressida" in the midst of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.

"It's important that the war look like something audiences will recognize," Melrose says during a telephone interview from his home in San Francisco. "Criticizing a war that uses shields and spears isn't as potent as criticizing one that uses M16s and tanks. Most productions of 'Troilus' are set during the Trojan War and the actors are dressed in Trojan and Greek armor and heavy helmets. I thought the play's satire landed flat because that setting is so distant and abstract."

"Troilus and Cressida" opens Saturday, March 31, in OSF's New Theatre. Curtain is at 8 p.m.

Shakespeare recounts Homer's "The Iliad" and mixes it with a Chaucer poem, "Troilus and Criseyde," for a story of two lovers who are robbed of each other amid an endless war.

Melrose says he's wanted to direct the play for many years. He is artistic director of The Cutting Ball Theater, a company he founded 12 years ago.

"I'm attracted to its world view and its sense of humor," he says. "It's interesting that OSF is presenting 'Troilus' this season, along with 'Romeo and Juliet' and 'Henry V.' 'Romeo and Juliet' has an idealistic view of love, and 'Henry V' has an idealist view of war. 'Troilus' has a realistic and deep satirical view of both those things."

There's a darkness and a complexity, along with satire, to "Troilus," Melrose says.

"It's really two things," he says. "Honor is spoken many times, and as we know, hypocrisy is a big part of contemporary politics and war-making. We hear lofty reasons for war, but we all suspect that the real reasons are base and suspect.

"On the other hand, we have Hector, who represents the highest form of honor. He's incredibly skilled in battle, he's magnanimous and merciful. But in this play a character like that comes to a bad end. But there's great beauty in the play, because Hector is one of the most honorable characters that Shakespeare ever wrote.

"And there's the beautiful love story between Troilus and Cressida that is corrupted by the war."

Melrose says the idea to set a contemporary war story in an ancient world came to him while conducting a workshop of "Troilus" at Stanford University.

"One of the actors playing Ajax had been a Marine and served in Iraq," he says. "He was with the troops that first crossed the border from Kuwait. He showed me photographs, and one was of the ruins of Babylon. It was amazing to see modern tanks and soldiers in front of crumbling, ancient ruins of a society that goes back to the Bible."

Another reason Melrose has been drawn to the play for so many years is its wicked sense of humor.

"The play's satire is very funny," he says. "For example, there's one character named Thersites. He is the lowest character in the hierarchy, and he often stands on the outside of a scene providing disgusting, nasty but spot-on commentary. It rather deflates the heroics of the other characters."

"Troilus and Cressida" will run through Nov. 4. For tickets, call the box office at 541-482-4331 or see

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