Saturday, July 16, 2016

Ajax in Iraq (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

I'm not completely sure how many people actually "get" the title of this play, Ajax in Iraq.  On the other hand, perhaps that is too much skepticism on my part.  In the last year I've seen more than one play harken back to Greek myth and/or the Trojan War.  Ajax was one of many Greek heroes in the Illiad, the ancient epic telling  of that terrible conflict.

On one level, this work offers a parallel between the Greek invasion of Troy and the American invasion of Iraq--two wars fought for confusing motives.  In both cases the troops on the ground faced long weary years in the desert.  Both became embroiled with internal conflicts.  Both find themselves estranged from families, subject to baffling questions.

Photo: Sean Deckert
Some even go mad.  Or what seems like madness.  It has become a cliche in our own fiction.  How many episodes of Criminal Minds deal with some veteran snapping and becoming a danger to others?  Well, it does make for an easy plot point.

Here, though, we delve deeper.  Ajax (Aaron Hendry) is a central tragic hero of the Trojan War, driven mad by the Gods lest  his rage interfere with their plans, but who met his disgrace with vast courage, even wisdom.  AJ (Courtney Munch), a modern US soldier, seems a parallel to him--driven to great acts of valor and of madness, who forces her comrades to react in wildly different ways--just as the Greeks did to Ajax.

All of which sounds rather intellectual (especially coming from my pen) but that misses how incredibly visceral and physical this show is, in every single moment.  Much of it seems as much a dance as a play (note: the Greek War God Ares is also the God of Dance)--the cast physically throwing their bodies into the conflicts within their story.  From the front row on opening night, I saw the sweat dripping from them by play's end.  All of which makes the story seem increasingly real, increasingly tangible.

Photo: Sean Deckert
Even when the Greek War Goddess Athena (Joanne Bateman) shows up, wielding inhuman powers inhumanly--or maybe exactly as a human would wield them.  The fact she comes across as a punk elf is just one of many startling ways the show slaps our expectations away.

We see war is hell, in oh so many ways.  But when it comes to laying blame, that is confounded.  Nobody can even say for certain why anyone is fighting the war.  Athena's idea makes as much as any--because warriors come to love one another, to trust one another above all else.  But is that a good thing?  Or bad?  Both?  Neither?

Do Ajax and AJ act in the wisest, best way to what befalls?  Do their compatriots?  Do their families?

Any answers--if there are answers--must come from us.  Ajax in Iraq asks the questions, in such a way as we feel compelled to look for an answer.  Which is what theatre does at its very  very best.

Photo: Sean Deckert
Meanwhile all those questions emerge in just about every threatrical form imaginable, all integrated together via theme and focus.  A masked chorus acts and speaks as one.  Individuals speak to the audience, trying to make sense of what they've seen and heard and felt.  For one brief, raw-nerve moment Ajax and AJ see one another--and we feel it down to the marrow.  Seemingly simple, realistic scenes between characters play out tiny human dramas which are the building blocks of the Epic.  Dolls become avatars for the tragedy of war and warriors.  Songs fill the air, coupled with dance, and ultimately become something like a mosh pit where Ancient Greeks and Modern GIs give voice and form to their glory/horror.

Credit for this amazing piece of theatre goes to the rest of the cast as well--Alina Bolshakova, Laura Covelli, Sydney A. Mason, James Bane (his Sargeant proves very hard to forget), Jason Barlaan, Jessical Carlsen, Zach Davidson, Kendall Johnson, Jolene Kim, Ronin Lee, Frederick Ramsay Jr. and Olivia Trevino.  They under the direction of John Farmasnesh-Bocca together gave breathing, dancing, bleeding and singing flesh to the skeleton of Ellen McLaughlin's fascinating script. 

Ajax in Iraq plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 7pm through August 14, 2016 at the Greenway Court Theatre, 544 North Fairfax (north of the Grove, south of Melrose), Los Angeles CA 90036.

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