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 and 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 Katie Bandurski, 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 George Al Rayes and Max Ginkel, who maintain 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, they build a lively and compelling momentum that persists even through apparently tangential scenes. One of the most haunting moments of the play is as unnamed soldiers recounts an incident of incredible brutality. The scene is beautifully staged; their 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 soldiers 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.
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.
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.