Saturday, June 11, 2011

THEATER: Ajax in Iraq

Photos/Isaiah Tanenbaum
Every year, there's a so-called exposé on the traumatic aftereffects of war, as if that grim fact were news. The truth is that as we shift from stones to clubs to spears to swords to cannons to muskets to machine guns to gas to bombs, we're only changing the type of destruction, not the results. The only difference between the stresses placed on Greek soldiers at the siege of Troy and those placed on American ones in Iraq is that the Greeks blamed insanity on the gods. In Ellen McLaughlin's Ajax in Iraq, Athena (Raushanah Simmons) gleefully brags to Odysseus (Mike Mihm) about the curse she's set against Ajax (a restrained Stephen Conrad Moore); when the script switches to its contemporary parallel, we're left to figure out what's reduced AJ (the excellent Christina Shipp) from a front-line hero, paving the way for her female peers, to a sleep-starved depressive: it's not until late in the play that we'll meet her abusive commander (Joshua Koopman), a man that we can all agree is crueler and closer than any "god" of war.

When focused on these not-so-distant echoes between wars, McLaughlin succeeds in showcasing the mental strain and suffering that all wars share in common. Unfortunately, as with many collaboratively written plays (the first draft was developed at the ART Institute in 2009), the concept is quickly overwritten and repeated. Instead of focusing on her characters and building out from their unique situations, she shifts into docutheater mode; six unnamed soldiers (Mihm, Chinaza Uche, Sol Crespo, Lori E. Parquet, Tiffany Clementi, and Koopman) go through a litany of familiar complaints about the Iraq War. Some of them are awkward ("It's this feeling of all of us, the Iraqis and the American soldiers, we're all being just hung out to dry"), while some of them aim for poetry: "What I can't get a handle on here is the time. It just doesn't go by. When you're being mortared, the seconds happen so slowly that they expand to where you can walk around in each one of them like it's a cathedral."

From a dramaturgic perspective, this is all interesting and perhaps necessary, given the lack of adult education and the steep divide between those in the military and those not; it may be useful to be hit over the head with how little America learned from the previous creation/occupation of Iraq, courtesy of Gertrude Bell (Anna Rahn) and a British captain (Matthew Archambault): "Military occupations go wrong, they just do. Even when they begin with the best of intentions." But it's not as effective as the less-direct, casual (and causal) scenes that focus on AJ's peers, particularly her best friend, Connie Mangus (Chudney Sykes). You can feel the tension when it's not being discussed, see it in the way that Mangus and her buddies play five-card stud with worn, sandy cards and bullets for chips. Ask yourself which is a more convincing argument against gender stereotypes: examples quoted in a professor's careful lecture or a sloppy group of soldiers sitting around in their fatigues, joking about their horrible childhood fashion senses (cowboy boots and a dashiki), laughingly throwing sexist jokes ("Gotta be a bitch, a whore, or a dyke") back at their male counterparts. 

Despite the erratic pacing and occasionally overwrought examples, Ajax in Iraq is potently directed by August Schulenburg, whose similarly styled The Lesser Seductions of History makes him particularly suited to this role. Likewise, Flux Theater's new emphasis on aesthetics -- which only really began with this year's productions (the cluttered attic of Jacob's House, the marvelous live-in cart of Dog Act) -- takes some of the emphasis off the script. Will Lowry's set effortlessly merges the two main eras of the play, with a bloody tent sandwiched by strong stone columns, some shattered, some standing. The floor is a map of the Middle East, in which sand has carefully been raked into a landmass, the Tigris and Euphrates furrowed through it, and this makes its arbitrary creation/destruction all the more blatant as actors stomp, crawl, and kick through it. Sandbags wave hauntingly from hooks in the ceiling, spare cots (and sleeping soldiers) line the visible backstage areas (Ajax, providing a peek behind the "facts" and the histories of war). It is timeless stuff: everything that has happened is happening again, and Schulenburg makes some marvelous pictures (using striking, jagged angles) when staging the overlapping scenes, such as when Tecmessa (Parquet), Ajax's wife, speaks alongside a therapist's patient (Clementi), both in fear of how the war has changed their husband. At the very least, scenes that feel out of place -- like a description of how NVGs (night vision goggles) make the soldiers feel like they're in a dream -- look good.

Facts and research have their place, and that's generally on a poster-board outside the theater or inserted in the program. (To Flux's and dramaturg Heidi Nelson's credit, they have both of these, too.) For McLaughlin, they keep getting in the way. The show's climactic Maori war dance climax is impressive, particularly as it stands in ironic contrast to Ajax's eruditely written rage, but these sequences are followed by what feels like a PSA: "I'm here to speak to you today on behalf of the New England Shelter for Homeless Veterans and the more than a million homeless veterans living in the USA today." AJ and Ajax aren't homeless (to the end they're pursued by their friends and family); they're depressed. The same goes for the overstuffed finale: instead of simply splitting the eulogy between Athena and Mangus, McLaughlin has two soldiers, Pisoni and Sickles, hastily debate the pros and cons of suicide. There's a great play in Ajax in Iraq, but as hard as Flux has tried, it's up to McLaughlin to chisel off the excess and polish it into the cautionary statue it longs to be.

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