Not Man Apart

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"Ajax in Iraq" (Review) -- Stage Raw

Originally posted here by Lyle Zimskind

The Sophoclean drama Ajax offers one of the earliest psychological depictions of a mighty warrior who ends up wracked by a condition we might now identify as PTSD. In that classical Greek play this trauma is explained as the wile of an intervening deity, the goddess Athena. In Ellen McLaughlin’s 2011 Ajax in Iraq, the descent of the mythic soldier (Aaron Hendry) into suicidal madness is paralleled with the contemporary tragedy of A.J. (Courtney Munch), a heroic female U.S. soldier in Iraq who is irretrievably tormented by the sexual predations of her commanding sergeant (James Bane) with no intervention from the chilly Athena (Joanna Rose Bateman).

Not Man Apart Physical Theatre Ensemble is currently reprising the L.A. production of Ajax in Iraq which it premiered in 2014. Directed and choreographed by NMA founder John Farmanesh-Bocca, along with current co-artistic director Jones Welsh, this staging vitally enhances McLaughlin’s occasionally plodding play with the company’s signature kinetic moments of individual and ensemble bodies in motion and an expressive production design. The arresting full-cast dance piece that kicks off the performance, for example, enmeshes us in the brutality of the war enterprise far more viscerally than the subsequent opening dialogue, which rehashes the now-familiar litany of political and strategic problems with the conduct of the Iraq campaign.

The surfeit of secondary characters we meet in the contemporary Iraq war segments of Ajax in Iraqwould diffuse our attention from the central horror of A.J.’s ordeal if not for the gravitational strength of Munch’s characterization. Even before we learn the specific nature of her ordeal, Munch powerfully conveys the toll of her war experience. Bane (a real-life Marine who served two tours in Iraq before taking up professional acting) is not just menacing but disturbingly cold in the role of the iniquitous nameless rapist sergeant.  As A.J.’s confidante, Mangus, Sydney A. Mason effectively provides a contrasting strong conscience.

NMA co-artistic director Hendry is a powerful presence as Ajax, the quondam war hero who cannot control the impulses that propel his senseless acts of violence back on the home front. If the Athena inAjax in Iraq is more of an attitudinal Greek chorus figure than a fully developed character subject to human motivations — well, she is a goddess, after all, and Bateman’s apparent indifference to the fray she presides over imbues us with a feeling of helplessness at the physical and emotional carnage of the events unfolding before us.  


Greenway Court Theatre, 544 N. Fairfax Ave. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through August 14. (323) 673-0544, Running time: 95 minutes with no intermission.

NPR Feature on "Ajax"

Originally posted here by John Ismay.

Sophocles' Ajax is resurrected as a female soldier in Hollywood play

For two and a half millennia, the Greek tragedy of “Ajax” has endured as one of the best depictions of war and the psychological damage it can inflict on combatants. And at the Greenway Court Theater in Hollywood, the Ajax story is being reborn.

Ajax In Iraq,” playing through August 14, reincarnates the classic warrior as A.J., a female Army specialist. But in a unique turn, the play shifts back and forth between the walls of ancient Troy and the height of the Iraq War. Timelines blend. We see Sophocles' Ajax character alongside his modern-day counterpart as both become celebrated, though doomed warriors.

A.J. proves herself in battle as the only woman in her company, rescuing dead and wounded comrades from an improvised bomb attack. But like Ajax, her heroism doesn't save her from deteriorating emotionally and mentally as the play unfolds. A.J. becomes the victim of repeated sexual assault by her sergeant, which takes a toll to the point where like Ajax, she snaps. 

Director John Farmanesh-Bocca said in modernizing the tragedy, having a female lead was a natural choice: “It suggests that this is a reincarnation of Ajax the great warrior,” he said. “In a woman who is a great female combatant, who is a hero, who does incredible things.” As a play meant to highlight the ugliness of combat, focusing the story line on military sexual assault also seemed a natural way to update the original, Farmanesh-Bocca said. 

It's the second time the Not Man Apart Physical Theater Ensemble has performed the play, and this time they made it a point to audition actors who’d actually served in the military themselves.

“We ended up with three awesome guys, so good for their roles," said Aaron Hendry, who plays Ajax. He said the actors changed the dialogue to sound more like how soldiers actually talk and joke with each other. The veteran actors stripped out formal and melodramatic lines, and made the dialogue truer to the voices they knew in uniform.

“They brought what really for a civilian population sometimes felt like a crass, sick sense of humor to some things,” Hendry said. “They talked about moments that were getting really heavy handed or very dramatic that they’d be like, ‘that is not how it is’.” Hendry said the vets bring an intensity to their acting that’s informed by actual experience, as they shift between the role of the classic, white-masked Greek Chorus, and A.J.'s platoon mates in modern day Iraq.

The Chorus contributes to the noisiness of the play, engaging with the music playing through much of the performance—a mix of ethereal instrumentals, rock, and heavy metal. 

The ensemble found new life in the Black Keys’ song “Little Black Submarines.”  The song isn’t about war. But in this context, you wouldn’t know it. “Oh can it be / the voices calling me, they get lost and out of time / I should’ve seen it glow, but everybody knows, that a broken heart is blind," the chorus sings before erupting into stomps and rage.

Courtney Munch , who plays A.J., said the updated story resonated with one veteran in particular: her father. He fought in Vietnam but never talked to her about it. He did, though, come to see her perform. "My brother said he just had tears streaming down his face," Munch said.  

Ajax in Iraq's ending message is an unmistakably political commentary on war. Whether or not one agrees with it, the audience realized that for these two warriors, for the price paid in death and destruction, there's little left to show for it. 

This story was produced as part of the American Homefront Project—a collaboration of North Carolina Public Radio-WUNC, KUOW-Seattle, and KPCC-Southern California Public Radio.