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Theatre South Carolina Breaks Ground With Finely Tuned “Ajax In Iraq

Review by August Krickel.

Theatre South Carolina's Ajax in Iraq, running through Oct. 11 in USC's Longstreet Theatre, is as good a piece of ensemble acting and as professionally and proficiently staged a production as I've seen in 20 years or more. While playwright Ellen McLaughlin's clever mashup of classical and modern themes is often but not always successful, and while her script sometimes verges on preachiness, the commitment by director Peter Duffy and his cast to convey the emotions and experiences of men and women at war is outstanding.

A long one-act running approximately 90 minutes (with no intermission), Ajax in Iraq juxtaposes the tragedy of the mythical hero Ajax, taken directly from the play by Sophocles, with the plight of A.J., a U.S. soldier serving in Iraq.  Using the Trojan War as a metaphor isn't new. James Joyce patterned Ulysses after the adventures of Odysseus, poet Allen Tate wrote Aeneas at Washington (a possible inspiration for this play's title) as a lament on modernism during the Depression era, and even television's Hercules - The Legendary Journeys depicted the hero Ajax as a crazed, Rambo-like leader of disenfranchised veterans. The author has previously penned more traditional adaptations of other Greek tragedies, incorporating modern dress and drawing parallels with contemporary issues.  To my knowledge, however, this is the first time that she has directly inserted modern American characters and plotlines into a classical story. In doing so, and by incorporating hot-button issues like the futility of our involvement in the Middle East, the challenges faced by veterans (and their families) upon returning home, and the victimization of female soldiers by superior officers, McLaughlin demands to be taken seriously, and creates a story of relevance not only to enthusiasts of literature, drama, and classics, but to the broader public as well.  

Ajax, played by Reginald Leroy Kelly, Jr., is second in strength only to Achilles among the Greeks at Troy, and Kelly does a nice job as a swaggering, ripped warrior crippled by his own pride; he could project a little more, however. To use the vernacular of the Viet Nam era (also referenced in this play), Ajax is denied commendation for valor under fire, decides to frag his CO, goes dinky dao (i.e. has a psychotic meltdown), and is unable to live with the dishonor he has brought to the uniform. Was Ajax the first documented case of PTSD?  Apart from the whole being mythological thing, it's a safe bet that Bronze Age poets incorporated real-life experiences told by soldiers in the same way authors do now.  An unexpected treat is the sympathetic performance by Grace Ann Roberts as Tecmessa, Ajax's "battle-bride," i.e. a freeborn woman taken by the Greeks and given to Ajax as a concubine. Meaning that her recent life has consisted of rape and enslavement, but she has tried to make the best of her fate, becoming a supportive partner to Ajax and bearing his child.

Jasmine James, as an icily regal goddess Athena who slips into hip and sarcastic modern slang, sees all, and provides the link to similar events occurring in the present, where seemingly stoic A.J. (Jamie Boller) is the top soldier in her unit, but is becoming moody and withdrawn. Boller and Kelly technically never interact, but they perform next to each other, in a gripping denouement to their parallel stories. Even though she is the play's central figure, Boller is shortchanged by the script, but makes the most of her time on stage, particularly in an unsettling scene of abuse with A.J.'s sergeant, played by Wes Williams. In one of countless inventive moments, director Duffy separates the actors, allowing the audience to see each fully, as they realistically act out an assault, while never actually touching.  In a similar instance of carefully planned and choreographed movement, Roberts crumples into Kelly's arms while he is already reclining. It's a sudden movement, the kind that usually results in an actor's elbow accidentally going into an eye, but it's expertly timed, and instead they lock together like pieces of a puzzle.

I mentioned the ensemble acting. The performance begins with modern soldiers on patrol, functioning like a Greek chorus, with each actor speaking in turn, expressing the conflicting thoughts and emotions that troops feel. The play is staged in the round, allowing each soldier to move around the stark set in semi-darkness, connecting with a different portion of the audience with each line. As these are representative of internal monologues - and reportedly based on interviews with actual veterans - there is no direct interaction among the cast, meaning that each performer has to take his or her cue solely from the sound of the previous actor's voice in the dark. There are no microphones, and everyone can be heard clearly, even when the actors occasionally speak in unison like an actual Greek chorus.  With the configuration of Longstreet's seating, they perform within inches of the first row, and never break character.  The age-appropriate cast perfectly captures the frustration of grunts on the front lines, wanting to do a good job, but unclear on why they are fighting to protect a foreign people who don't want or appreciate the protection. "Are they crazy?" one asks, with the obvious realization "Are we crazy?"   One soldier observes that the troops ironically find themselves in a war to defend someone's freedom to say they disagree with the war; another complains that when people demand to "Bring the Troops Home," they ignore the fate of those who are left behind.

A devotee of Fox News might take this and other scenes as an indictment of the Bush administration, but I guarantee you that G.I.'s at Normandy were similarly griping about Roosevelt and Eisenhower. As part of this work's bending of time and location, we also get Andrea Wurzburger as a British official, describing how the Allies carved up the Middle East after the First World War, while Michael Ferrucci as a modern officer provides a counterpoint as he details the ridiculous paradoxes that resulted in later decades. What could have been a dry lecture topic instead becomes easy-to-follow exposition, thanks to the actors' constant movement, believable stage business, and ease with engaging the audience.

Also deserving of praise are Raven Massey as a soldier who appears to have hardened her heart against what she calls the "pity party" of troops suffering from their experiences in combat, and Rebecca Shrom, Alissa Holmes and Grace Stewart, who along with Massey comprise a believable barracks-poker-game foursome, bantering with gritty battlefield humor as soldiers have from the dawn of time. Jay Fernandes, light years away from his portrayal of Eugene in last spring’s Biloxi Blues, is effective as both another wisecracking soldier, and as a therapist counseling a veteran's troubled wife (Kelsea Woods.)  Woods is terrific in a closing speech as a soldier who sums up many of the show's themes: no one knows why they are there or what they are fighting for, so she focuses on her duty. Yet as she guards a supply of energy drinks in a convoy, she realizes the absurdity of fighting to protect energy drinks.

The play is full of memorable lines like that, although by throwing in the kitchen sink along with many other themes, the playwright tries to make too many statements and touch too many bases. Had the play gone beyond its 90 minutes, I might have become annoyed with some of the heavy-handed social messages. Yet each topic she covers is an important one, and wisely USC is sponsoring talkback sessions following some performances for further discussion of the issues raised. 

Production values for this show are extremely high. Choreographer Terrance Henderson has devised a nightmarish scene of surreal motion for the ensemble in which they wordlessly express anger through natural movement, as we hear the band Disturbed's song "Down with the Sickness." Scenic designer Andy Mills has created a bare stage representing the map of Iraq, broken into fragments that suggest both the cracked floor of the barren desert, and a highway shattered by bombing runs or by IED's. Valerie Pruett's hair and wig design is superb, as are Lisa Martin-Stuart's costumes. In yet another ingenious touch, the ancient characters wear modern fatigue pants, with simple leather straps and panels suggesting armor.

As a child, reading a Classics Illustrated Comics version of The Iliad, I was struck by how impossible it seemed for a war to last 10 years, or that military leaders might be hamstrung by personality clashes or power struggles.  Ah, the naiveté of youth!  Accordingly, though, this may be the first review of a gripping drama about tragic and controversial themes where the critic has once acted out the title character's adventures with toy soldiers. Here, the portrayers of both protagonists of the play succeed, but the true stars of the show are the depth of talent among the ensemble, all undergraduates, and the vision of director Peter Duffy. I have never seen this faculty member's work previously, as he has concentrated primarily on developing the department's Master of Arts in Teaching program. Duffy has created an extraordinary piece of work, one which tackles important issues while allowing his young actors to flex their dramatic muscles, and I look forward to whatever he has in store next.






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