Every year, there’s a so-called exposé on the traumatic aftereffects of war, as if that grim fact were news. The truth is that as we shift from stones to clubs to spears to swords to cannons to muskets to machine guns to gas to bombs, we’re only changing the type of destruction, not the results. The only difference between the stresses placed on Greek soldiers at the siege of Troy and those placed on American ones in Iraq is that the Greeks blamed insanity on the gods. In Ellen McLaughlin’s Ajax in Iraq, Athena (Katie Bandurski) gleefully brags to Odysseus (Alex Hergon-Cox) about the curse she’s set against Ajax (Joe Schwalb) when the script switches to its contemporary parallel, we’re left to figure out what’s reduced AJ (Grace Bobber) from a front-line hero, paving the way for her female peers, to a sleep-starved depressive: it’s not until late in the play that we’ll meet her abusive commander (Marty Bergquist), a man that we can all agree is crueler and closer than any “god” of war.
When focused on these not-so-distant echoes between wars, McLaughlin succeeds in showcasing the mental strain and suffering that all wars share in common. Six unnamed soldiers (Cassidy Buenz, Josh Fischer, Molly Haugh, Ryan Deloge, Maggie Collins, Michael Kirsanov) go through a litany of familiar complaints about the Iraq War.
From a dramaturgic perspective, this is all interesting and necessary, given the lack of adult education and the steep divide between those in the military and those not; it may be useful to be hit over the head with how little America learned from the previous creation/occupation of Iraq, courtesy of Gertrude Bell (Maddie Fricker), a Britsh Writer who helped map out the middle east in 1919 and a captain (Martin Bergquist): “Military occupations go wrong, they just do. Even when they begin with the best of intentions.” But the scenes that are most effective are the less-direct, and causal scenes that focus on AJ’s peers, particularly her best friend, Connie Mangus (Alexis Thompson). You can feel the tension when it’s not being discussed, see it in the way that Mangus and her buddies play five-card stud with worn, sandy cards and chips. Ask yourself which is a more convincing argument against gender stereotypes: examples quoted in a professor’s careful lecture or a sloppy group of soldiers sitting around in their fatigues, joking about their horrible childhood fashion senses (cowboy boots and a dashiki), laughingly throwing sexist jokes (“Gotta be a skank, or a whore”) back at their male counterparts.
Ajax, providing a peek behind the “facts” and the histories of war. It is timeless stuff: everything that has happened is happening again, and the Seminar class makes some marvelous pictures (using striking, jagged angles) when staging the overlapping scenes, such as when Tecmessa (Maggie Collins), Ajax’s wife, speaks alongside a therapist’s patient (Molly Haugh), both in fear of how the war has changed their husband.
The dual stories of ancient and modern war questions the point and productivity of war. The same betrayal and torture that happened to Ajax in ancient Greece also happened to A.J. in modern times. Human nature cannot be cured and therefore, both characters, although separated by thousands of years, meet the same tragic end.
Ajax in Iraq will run this weekend Friday @6pm and Saturday @noon in the Black Box Theatre at Homestead High School. Admission is FREE!