Portland Actors Ensemble’s new production unfolds around a towering memorial at Lone Fir Cemetery. It’s a fittingly sepulchral setting for William Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, a play defined by death, betrayal and characters who hunger for love they’ll never receive.

Yet those volatile themes are barely felt in this production. Troilus and Cressida is set during the eighth year of the Trojan siege, but the costumes in this version are contemporary—Troilus (Jacob Camp) wears an earth-toned military uniform. Like his many of his fellow Trojans, Troilus ultimately ends up in the midst of battle, though he still finds time to turn his fancy to the witty and wily Cressida (Alexandria Casteele).

For reasons that presumably include the story’s deficiency of romantic prospects—many of the play’s men are monsters and/or fools—Cressida indulges Troilus’s advances. Much to her new lover’s dismay, their momentary bliss is interrupted when she’s forced to join the Greeks. But even in the scene of her kidnapping, the difficulty of the task PAE has created for themselves is evident—Casteele’s performance lacks the vigor necessary for an outdoor performance, even in Cressida’s most tormented moments.

Outdoor plays mean the performances have to inhabit a much larger space than a traditional theater. Plus, Troilus and Cressida is one of Shakespeare’s most notoriously difficult plays. Director Patrick Walsh has helmed plenty of successful productions of the Bard’s plays and was the co-artistic director of the Shakespeare-oriented Post5 Theatre’s last season. But this one is full of baffling conversations, a traumatically bleak conclusion and a sprawling ensemble that makes the two eponymous characters seem like afterthoughts.

The performances by Paul Susi and Landy Hite are a much-needed boon. Susi plays the Greek commander Achilles as a pouting, scarily angry baby of a man, and Hite delivers a chilling emotional meltdown as the Trojan commander Aneas.

The production has its spine-tingling moments—like during the battle that brings this Troilus and Cressida to a harrowing climax with a tornado of prop gunfire, spilled blood and a fight that features what look terrifyingly like kitchen knives. The action is a relief after the play’s scenes of ceaseless chatter, and the choreographed dance of assault and murder is so brutal and coherent that when a faux firearm emits a sharp “pop,” it seems like the real deal.

Even better is Susi’s performance during and after the violence. To watch him embody Achilles’ tragic arrogance in battle and his wounded regret after the fighting has finished is to realize that perhaps the play’s greatest mistake was authored by the Bard himself. After all, he was the one who fixated on the title characters while Achilles, who could have been a superior and thrillingly complex leading man, was nestled in the play’s grim narrative all along.

SEE IT: Troilus and Cressida plays at the Lone Fir Cemetery, SE 26th Avenue and Stark Street, portlandactors.org. 7:00 pm Thursday-Saturday, July 7-29. Free.