Ajax in Iraq, by Ellen McLaughlin, weaves together Sophocles' classic play AJAX and stories from today's newspaper. Parallel narratives follow Ajax, a Greek warrior, and A.J., a contemporary female soldier on duty in Iraq, both of whom are undone by the betrayal of a commanding officer.
Reviewers seem to agree that - just like war - this show is messy and brutal.
There are no minor characters in this play, everyone stepping forward at some point to deliver a speech that may stop you in your tracks, but always advances the story.
Some may feel a bit bludgeoned by the many variations on "What are we doing here?" asked by the soldiers, but rarely does a play give you so much to chew on in such a short amount of time. It says something about the deft touch of director Wendy Knox and her talented cast that this rewarding production never pushes you into overload.
Ajax In Iraq sprawls. Frank Theatre describes the piece as a "mash-up" and it is that for sure. ...The soldiers often serve as chorus, in both the modern and Greek stories. Characters often speak directly to the audience. The play has a savage, almost insane momentum (kudos here to Knox).
Does all this work? Well, yes, very often. I was blown away, for example, by the angry, choreographed, wordless choric dance of the soldiers. The play's climax, in which the contemporary and Greek stories twirl together, is heartbreaking.
That director Knox's staging of MacLaughlin's poetic mashup of mythical Greece and contemporary Iraq is a mixed bag is almost beside the point. That the acting company has a few strong performers? Eh. That there is a nice symmetry of the chorus of soldiers switching between ancient times and today is nice.
That indelible scene [in which a sergeant rapes a soldier] , in which the word "dismissed" flies like a dagger, makes this gritty, unsparingly directed show, well worth seeing...this "Ajax in Iraq" is bluntly affecting.
There are times... that both McLoughlin and Knox let the play get away from them. The connection between Ajax and A.J. feels underutilized; for the number of difficult questions that could have been asked - for instance, who is the Athena of the Iraq war? - very few of them actually were. There is also a strangely exhibitionistic baring of souls that at times feels too self-critical to be plausible for the character and the situation. Similarly, some events - including a staged rape scene - seem to be aimed more at fanning the flames of the audience's outrage than with communicating new ideas.
Ajax in Iraq is like a stomach punch--a messy, disturbing merging of the ancient tale of Ajax going mad on the beaches of Troy and similar events playing out amid the sand of modern-day Iraq. It's not a pretty or always cohesive piece, but the overall effect is gut-wrenching.
...At times the script seems to have trouble finding its focus, taking side trips such as introducing Gertrude Bell, the British writer and political administrator who drew up the borders of modern-day Iraq. In the end, these issues don't matter, as the performances--especially Katie Guentzel as A.J.--strip away the distractions and leave us with a heartbreaking tale.
Have you seen Ajax in Iraq? If so, what did you think? Share your review in the comments section.
Go see it! If you are disturbed you should be. When you get done shuddering you'll want to talk about it. Post show discussion after Sunday matinee. I've seen it twice and will go again.