Taking a closer look at Madison theater
Aug 4, 2014
02:12 PMStage Write
Fermat's Last Theater Company Takes on a Shakespeare "Problem Play"
PHOTO BY MARIE SCHULTE
Michael Fleischman (left) and Alex Hancock star as Cressida and Pandarus, respectively, in Fermat's Last Theater Company's production of 'Troilus and Cressida.'
Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida is one of the Bard’s “problem plays,” a tricky little love story that balances multiple plot strands as it veers unsteadily between comedy and tragedy, all while the events of Homer’s Iliad play bloodily out around it.
The actors of Fermat’s Last Theater Company plan to turn it into a circus.
The company, named for the seventeenth century French mathematician whose final, mind-blowing proof was too large to fit in the margins of an ancient Greek mathematics text, burst onto the local theater scene last year with a thoughtful and well-received performance of the Bard’s The Merchant of Venice. After using a Kickstarter campaign to raise nearly $2,000 to finance Troilus and Cressida—it opens this Thursday in the DeLuca space in the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery building—the company’s ready to build on last year’s opening salvo.
And they’re doing it in a much more flamboyant way than last year.
“We had no strong aesthetic choices for last year’s production,” says Ely Phan, Fermat’s artistic director, who's also directing Troilus and Cressida. “I’m glad it won’t be that way this time.”
You can say that again. The show’s awash in interesting and unusual touches, from circus-themed makeup and costuming to casting a female actress, Scout Slava-Ross, in the traditionally male role of Troilus. Fermat’s production wrangles with the play’s typical central themes—the role of violence as an integral part of human nature—but the decision to cross-cast adds yet another dimension to the notions of sexism and gender as part of war. In a play that’s packed with historical figures beating their respective chests—think Achilles, Agamemnon, Ulysses, Hector and Troilus—now at least one of the chest-beaters will be a woman.
“The idea is that anyone can perform this kind of violence,” says Phan. “The casting toys with the extreme masculinity and femininity in the play.”
The fact that Troilus and Cressida is considered a problem play, and not a straightforward romp like, say, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, was also appealing. “I like when the material is confusing,” says Phan. “It leaves room for interpretation. I don’t want to be told what the answers are. I want questions raised.”
Phan is intrigued by the connections the play draws between war and performance, and she’s also drawn to the idea of tying it all into the dark undercurrents of the circus and its freak-laden sideshows. “The lines are very blurry in that setting,” she says. “The people who inhabit circuses are often outcasts.”
Like last year’s production, the cast includes a mix of actors who, like Phan, spent time with Madison’s Young Shakespeare Players—a group quite familiar with the nuances of Shakespearean language—and some who’ve never wrapped their tongues around iambic pentameter before. There’s at least one healthy fight scene, and even some amateur-level Russian acrobatics. Troilus and Cressida will be staged in the round—a first for Phan—giving it another tie to the rings and arenas of the circus.
“I’m looking forward to seeing all our conceptual work come together physically,” says Phan.
Phan won’t likely be around for Fermat’s third season—she’s moving to Chicago a few weeks after the show closes—but she’s hopeful that even with a still-developing audience and participant base, the company will continue to attract those looking to stretch their creativity a little. “If someone would like to get their hands dirty, it’s a good opportunity,” she says.
Fermat’s Last Theater Company's production of Troilus and Cressida runs August 6–9 in the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery building, with $10 tickets available at the door. For more information, visit the theatre’s Tumblr blog and Facebook page.