It sounds like an idea with real potential. Take the story of the Greek hero Ajax, who, crazed with envy, slaughtered a flock of farm animals thinking they were his enemies. Cross-pollinate it with tales from the Iraq War, inspired by the true story of a female soldier’s suicide. Ancient PTSD; the hell of war in the modern era. War is ever the same, as are the questions that pervade it, notably: What are we fighting for?
But instead of dramatizing these compelling themes, playwright Ellen McLaughlin has elected, in Ajax in Iraq, to lecture us about them. The Flux Theatre Ensemble‘s usual high production standards and good casting are in evidence here as much as in any of their work, but even the best efforts of a highly committed cast under the muscular direction of company Artistic Director August Schulenburg can’t turn a dud into a live IED.
In what feels like a prologue, an assortment of well-realized soldiers lay out the political background of the Iraq invasion (taking an unabashed anti-war stance), while Gertrude Bell, a legendary diplomat instrumental in the creation of modern Iraq, pops in from a century ago to fill in a bit of the longer historical view. But that “introduction” long overstays its welcome, and when a real scene finally begins – of female soldiers playing cards and kidding around in their tent – I felt both a sense of relief and a suspicion, soon confirmed, that it was too little too late.
Raushanah Simmons as Athena, Stephen Conrad Moore as Ajax, and Christina Shipp as AJ. Photo by Isaiah Tanenbaum
A few powerful scenes, mostly centered on the ongoing “officer rape” of a female soldier known as AJ (the affecting Christina Shipp) by her male sergeant, hit home, and the impressive Stephen Conrad Moore makes a suitably tragic Ajax. The problem isn’t so much that the mythological and modern-day scenes fail to integrate smoothly; it’s that neither narrative gains any sustained dramatic purchase. The ratio of telling to showing is badly lopsided.
There are characters here with a lot of potential, and a fresh and welcome focus on the female soldiers who serve so selflessly in our overseas engagements. And there is much we can learn from Ajax, and from Sophocles, and in general from what the ancients in their long-stewed wisdom had to say about war. But while a work for the stage may bear a message, even an impassioned, strongly partisan one, Ajax in Iraq gives us only snapshots from such a hypothetical play.
Ajax in Iraq plays through June 25 at the Flamboyan Theater at the Clemente Solo Velez Cultural & Educational Center, 107 Suffolk St., New York. Tickets at Ovationtix.