Director Barbara Gaines clearly understands that the problem with “Troilus and Cressida, ” one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays” now in a revival at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, is one of tone. An examination of the costly price of war told through the prism of Greek mythology’s most famously futile one—that one fought over the woman whose face launched a thousand ships—this part comedy, part tragedy and part Homeric-inspired history play is a challenge for any director. So rather than fight, Gaines flaunts, going for broke in every one of “Troilus and Cressida’s contrasting scenes to examine all of the play’s emotional, psychological and philosophical dimensions. The result is a spectacular staging unified by its polished verse speaking and compelling in its condemnation of realpolitik. And so, Greek general Agamemnon and powerful Trojan adversary Hector are gravitas incarnate with actors Scott Jaeck and Mark L. Montgomery, respectively, giving performances that would just as well carry a bloody “Corialanus.” Title characters and lovers Troilus (Kevin O’Donnell) and Cressida (Chaon Cross) are cute as buttons and their shallow vows to one another are as dear as they are doomed. Lacy Coil, frighteningly effective as prophetic and distraught Cassandra, should have been in last year’s other Greek condemnation of war, “Hecuba.” CST veteran Greg Vinkler is perfect as the prolix Ulysses, and beautiful but dumb Paris (Lea Coco) and voluptuous Helen’s (Mary Kay Cook) famous third act opener is, in a word, hot. Memorable characterizations, strong performances and satisfying text work would have been more than enough for me, as well as justified the production’s nearly three-hour length, but Gaines’ piece de resistance is an eerie and beautifully haunting processional of dead warriors that bookends the play, reminding you that although Shakespeare mercilessly satirized all of his characters with delicious aplomb, ‘tis far better to be a foolish lover than a foolish warmonger. (Fabrizio O. Almeida)
Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand, (312)595-5600. Thu-Fri 7:30pm/Sat 3pm & 8pm/Sun 3pm/Tue 7:30pm/Wed 1pm & 7:30pm. $50-$67. Through June 24.