Theater Review: Ajax in Iraq

Ajax in Iraq Production Still - H 2014
Anthony Roldan

Ajax in Iraq Production Still - H 2014

A powerful adaptation of the Ajax myth that takes an unflinching view of rape in the U.S. military with Not Man Apart’s vivid staging alternating between inspired and overwrought.

If art is a public service, then McLaughlin has served her public well. With Ajax in Iraq she presents a stark truth about the cost of war: while our enemies are those that would do us harm, the greater enemy is war itself.

With a death toll as high as 1.5 million Iraqi civilians and 6,800 U.S. military, the Iraq war continues to haunt us three years after the drawdown. Compared to past wars the U.S. death toll seems paltry, yet other indexes took a much more frightful turn, such as suicide rates among veterans and skyrocketing instances of rape in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Among all the shocking figures in a 2012 Department of Defense report, one in particular stood out -– a female soldier is fifteen times more likely to be raped by her comrade than killed by the enemy.

Though lately there has been greater media coverage of these heartbreaking statistics, the military has been slow to react. Thankfully, playwright Ellen McLaughlin goes where they dare not. In her provocative play Ajax in Iraq, she cleverly juxtaposes the tale of Ajax (Aaron Hendry), Agamemnon’s top soldier after Achilles, with AJ (Courtney Munch), a standout among recruits in Iraq and de facto leader of the distaff minority in her platoon. Sleeping late and more listless than usual, AJ exhibits many of the signs of one being secretly brutalized.

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The rape scenes between she and Sergeant (Dash Pepin) are hard to witness, first in silhouette and later mid-stage, after AJ rescues three comrades from a burning building and is ordered to bend over as a reward for her valor.

As AJ, Munch is spell-binding, her background in stunt work serving her well in a performance grounded in physical movement rather than the relatively sparse dialog she’s given. Every nuance of her anguish is conveyed by the way she rolls out of bed in the morning, or enters the Sergeant’s office knowing what’s in store. She suffers silently, soldiering through until the degradation becomes too much for her.

Her counterpart is Aaron Hendry as Ajax, a man destroyed by war. “It’s just meat after a while,” he says of the carnage in one of the play’s most memorable lines. “The only difference is there’s meat with a pulse and meat without a pulse.” Hendry is a physical force on stage, as comfortable with sword fighting scenes as he is with soliloquies, and like Munch, his performance is accomplished mainly through gesture and mimicry.

Ajax and AJ dance together through time, playing out their sad stories in the same place and often simultaneously. It is an artful duet hauntingly staged by Farmananesh-Bocca, an expert choreographer.

Early on, McLaughlin relies a little too heavily on testimonial to set the scene when a cameraman collects sound bytes from the soldiers. While informative, it’s also repetitive and overly long. In fact, if there is any criticism of McLaughlin’s play it’s that it could use a trim. Otherwise Ajax in Iraq excels with its insight into character, its crafty use of archetypes and its non-pedagogic approach to hot-button issues like rape, suicide and PTSD.

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While battle scenes choreographed by Hendry are enthralling, additional choreography -- an opening and closing military-drill dance by Jones Welsh and the Not Man Apart ensemble -- is not. These parentheses feel tacked on with the first number seeming to portend an excruciating evening that happily never materializes.

Not Man Apart bills itself as a “physical theatre ensemble” and has been praised for its unique take on classics such as Pericles and Titus Andronicus (both staged by Farmanesh-Bocca). What they bring to Ajax in Iraq is outstanding fight and action choreography as well as indelible performances by Munch and Hendry. The ensemble exhibits a wide range of acting skill with Alina Bolshakova, in a minor role as Ajax’s wife, Tecmessa, delivering one of the most moving performances of the evening. As a vampy Athena, Emma Bell (The Walking Dead) has an easy time conveying a snarky attitude but struggles when the tone grows darker.

If art is a public service, then McLaughlin has served her public well. With Ajax in Iraq she presents a stark truth about the cost of war: while our enemies are those that would do us harm, the greater enemy is war itself.