Would, I wondered, Ellen McLaughlin‘s effective Ajax In Iraq (Frank Theatre, performing at the Playwrights Center, through Nov 27) work in 2011? The U.S. involvement in that country is winding down, measured now in days. For Iraqis, of course, the conflict – Sunni vs Shiite vs Kurd, autocratic fundamentalist vs democratic modernist – grinds on with no real end in sight. But for Americans the war is nearly over. Is the Second Gulf War old news?
It turns out, to McLaughlin and to Wendy Knox (Frank Theatre’s founder/artistic director/Ajax In Iraq director)’s great credit that the war in Iraq still resonates. Our presence there is at the center of how the world sees us and how we see ourselves. Iraq has replaced Vietnam as the “American war.” We will be studying it and reliving it for years to come.
American military personnel in Iraq weren’t angels, Lord knows, but they conducted themselves with heroic decency, working with horrific rules of engagement (“Let the Iraqis shoot first”) and with cynical brass who ran the war with (at best) homicidal naiveté and (at worst) deliberate dishonesty.
There is nothing smug or pat in how McLaughlin imagines these young soldiers. She has a vivid story to tell, of A.J., her cohorts and their struggle to stay sane in the face of the sun-blasted horrors of Iraq. Iraq quickly bakes any idealism out of these men and women and turns them into haters-yet-lovers of war. Iraq makes their re-entry into roly-poly America, with its shopping malls and its petroleum-fueled myopia difficult and in many cases impossible. This aspect of the play works gorgeously.
But Ajax In Iraq sprawls. Frank Theatre describes the piece as a “mash-up” and it is that for sure. McLaughlin interpolates large chunks of Sophocles’s Ajax into the piece, with smiling narrator Athena prowling the stage as war-maddened Ajax slays animals in his tent (thinking they’re his generals). McLaughlin uses historical figures: Gertrude Bell (the WWI era British explorer and drawer of mideast boundaries), the American Captain (one of the designers of the stunningly ineffective occupation). 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. I was less taken by Athena’s smiling but monotonic glibness which began to grate (this is a highly subjective judgment and is no way a criticism of actor Taous Khazem, whose work is terrific). The play ends endlessly. But, all in all, it works.
The actors thrill. As A.J., Katie Guentzel is superb. I won’t describe the scene between her and her Sergeant (splendidly played by Logan Verdoon) except to say that it took my breath away. Joy Dolo as one of the specialists in A.J.’s outfit is riveting. Dawn Brodey as Sickles is excellent, ditto Leif Jurgensen. The designers – Joe Stanley (sets), Kathy Kohl (costumes), Karin Olson (lights), Michael Croswell (sound) – do first rate work. The Playwrights Center is a good theater, but it has limited tech possibilities.
Ajax In Iraq requires, like many Frank plays, real work from its audience. This is not “well-made” theater. It’s jagged and harsh – and very effective.
For more information about John Olive, please visit his website.