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I'm an NYC-based director, and this is an outlet for my various musings about theater and about the city of New York. Sometimes the subjects run together, sometimes they are entirely separate, but between the two they comprise the most fitful, most intense, most trying love affair of my few years. They fill my head, my heart, my mouth every hour of every day; they could fill a book.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Ajax In Iraq

Flux Theater Ensemble's Ajax in Iraq closes on June 25th, so you still have time to catch this earnest, provocative and visually stunning play.

Ajax in Iraq tells the parallel stories of the eponymous Greek hero of Sophocles' tragedy Ajax and a young female soldier in Iraq named AJ. Ajax, gripped by jealousy and anger and driven mad by the goddess Athena, slaughters a herd of livestock in a violent rage. Meanwhile, in contemporary Iraq, AJ experiences horrors that begin to wage another internal war against her own mind. The two stories weave in an out of one another as both Ajax and AJ lose their grip on their sanity and then their struggle to come to terms with what that loss means.

Themes of our inherent, animal desire for cruelty and brutality as well as the frailty of the line that divides attacker, victim and passive bystander pervade the play. Athena, played with force and charisma by Raushanah Simmons, narrates the play and is the driving force behind it. A force, we discover rather quickly, not to be messed with. Equal parts vicious cunning and disturbing volatility, she is gleeful of her colossal power and ready to turn (against you) on a dime. Here, Athena represents the mind in all its immense power and terrifying vulnerability - its capacity for trickery, treachery, and devious second-guessing. The only thing that stands between us and the disturbing portraits of inexplicable violence we're watching, Athena warns us, is her. That is - the luck and happenstance that has thus far allowed us to keep our frail minds intact.

The play is directed with expertise by August Schulenburg, who maintains an evocative and striking aesthetic from start to finish. Story aside, the play is thrilling to watch for its gorgeous visual tableaus and dynamic uses of sound, rhythm, movement and space. But moreover, Schulenburg builds a lively and compelling momentum that persists even through apparently tangential scenes. One of the most haunting moments of the play is as an unnamed soldier recounts an incident of incredible brutality. The scene is beautifully staged; his confusion and disorientation by the rush of adrenaline and fear, the cover of night, and the distortion of the night-vision goggles are viscerally felt. Because of the strength of this moment, in the fury of the unnamed soldier we understand better the turmoil of both Ajax and AJ.

For the most part, the ancient Greek narrative and its contemporary counterpart work well together. With testimonials from modern-day soldiers in Iraq and the use of direct address, McLaughlin crafts a structure that echoes and evokes the Greek chorus of the original story.

The device of the parallel stories, however, begins to lag as the story progresses. The audience can see from the very beginning that AJ's story will mimic the Greek hero's, so the fun (if you can call such a grisly story "fun") becomes watching the particulars of why and how AJ's undoing will unfold in the context of the modern world.

Problematically, though, the play is too heavy with, well, just a lot of other stuff. There is the concurrent Greek tragedy to contend with, as well as certain unnecessarily political non-sequitors (a prime example: after Ajax/AJ's penultimate moment, the action cuts jarringly to a PSA for a shelter for homeless veterans). The result is that we only meet AJ and come to understand her struggle superficially, perfunctorily. Because the audience spends so little time with her, the horrors she endures feel more like devices, means to a forgone end, than a real journey. AJ is the heart of the play, and she is to often brushed aside.

The play meets further trouble in the way the two stories ultimately play out. In the end, AJ's story is just too similar to Ajax's. It left me wondering, as the two collided at the play's climax, why I needed to see the same story presented to me twice. The play would be stronger if the stories ran apart from one another a bit more - enough to appreciate their differences as well as their similarities. Or, if the conceit of the dual story were dropped altogether and the play instead focused on simply a modern retelling of Ajax. (Although I would be very sorry to see Ajax's side of the story go - Athena is by far the most exciting character in the play, and the dialogue in Ajax's scenes some of the most beautiful, leaving me with a very profound appreciation for playwright Ellen McLaughlin's poetic command of language.)

Still, despite the room for improvement, Ajax in Iraq is a passionate, genuine, and innovative examination of the atrocities of war - a story that needs to be told. Furthermore, the story is brought to justice with an immensely talented cast. In addition to Simmons, there were notable performances by Tiffany Clementi as a distraught wife of a solider suffering from PTSD, and Christina Shipp, in a sensitive and vulnerable portrayal of AJ.

With haunting eloquence, Ajax in Iraq somehow links past and present, tormentor and tormented, and pulls us from our comfortable chairs a little closer to the sting of the desert and the terror of battle. You'll leave rattled a little and questioning a lot.

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