The horror of war and its cost to the psyche of the soldiers who fight are brought vividly home in Ellen McLaughlin’s Ajax in Iraq. In parallel, overlapping and often synchronous story lines, the play shifts back and forth between the Trojan War and the War in Iraq. The show begins with the towering figure of the mighty Ajax (fierce, titanic Aaron Hendry), the Trojan War hero and the bulwark of the Achaean defenses during the siege of Troy. Driven mad by the insult he feels when the silver tongued Odysseus—aided by the interfering, amoral Athena (smooth, icy Joanna Bateman)—convinces the Greek commanders to award Achilles’ magic armor to him instead of the stalwart Ajax. Humiliated, Ajax goes mad with blood lust. He wants to kill Menelaus and Agamemnon, but in his delusional state spends the night slaughtering a flock of sheep instead.
Rocketing to the Twenty-first Century, the play picks up the story of the insanity of the Iraq War with its illusory goals and a fine army of emotionally and materially ill-prepared soldiers. A squad of male and female soldiers suffers the intensity and privations of the desert, as well as the understandable hostility of the populace. One soldier, edgy, emotionally distant A. J. (excellent Courtney Munch), also suffers the unwanted sexual attention of her sergeant (towering James Bane). The other soldiers in the squad, male and female, tick off with bitterness the multitude of conflicting, confused situations that make the Iraq War a horror show with the always-present danger of sudden death or dismemberment lurking behind a door or along a roadway.
Ajax and A. J. are parallel characters, but not equal. Both are fierce and brave, risking death to protect and defend their comrades. Both have powerful entities that interfere with them. Ajax has a god; A.J. has a merciless superior. Both come to the same hopelessness.
This ninety-five minute performance is powerful and profoundly affecting. Alina Bolshakova as Ajax’ war-wife Tecmessa is particularly so as she tries to talk Ajax out of his determination to kill himself after the shame of his night of foolish savagery. The entire ensemble— James Bane, Jason Barlaan, Jessica Carlsen, Laura Covelli, Zachary Reeve Davidson, Kendall Johnson, Jolene Kim, Ronin Lee, Sydney Mason, Frederick D. Ramsey, Jr., Olivia Trevino—are drilled, disciplined and passionate.
In The Iliad, the thumping pride of humans, leavened with the meddling Athena and other Gods, made the Trojan War a grim, ten-year fiasco. In one of the many overtly presentational scenes in Ajax in Iraq, Athena asks the audience if they really think the war is about a pretty girl and her feckless lover. No one needs to ask the meddling gods of the Iraq war—Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, et al.— what the putative goal of the Iraq War was; find weapons of mass destruction, superseded by nation building, protect the oil, on and on. What really spurred the invasion? Like the Achaeans, it was o’er-weaning pride. And who suffers? As always and eternally, it is those on the ground, soldiers, certainly, and Iraqis exponentially.
This revival of Ajax in Iraq (2014) is produced in the total theatre style of No Man Apart Physical Theatre Ensemble, with vigorous, powerful movement by director and choreographer John Farmanesh-Bocca and Assistant Choreographer Jones Welsh. Music and song is also a big part of the production with sound design by Mr. Farmanesh-Boca with Adam Phalen. Courtney Jordan Bindel’s painted map of the Middle East on the floor of the open stage constantly reminds the audience of place. Lighting by Joey Guthman goes far beyond illumination; it directs attention and establishes mood. Costume design by Stephanie Dunbar is ideal, with the ancients looking heroic or beautiful and the moderns authentically military.
Ajax in Iraq, a co-production with Greenway Court Theatre, is a superb piece of theatre and this show in this tumultuous political moment is timely and potent. It continues through August 14 at the Greenway Court Theatre, 544 North Fairfax, Los Angeles. Don’t miss it!