Sunday, August 14, 2016

Ajax in Iraq – by Ellen McLaughlin


Aaron Hendry - Photo Credits:  Sean Deckert
By Joe Straw

I lived in Clarksville, Tennessee back in the 1960s. My neighborhood friends and I were the diminutive sons of the 101st Airborne Division.

Summarily at various times, orders would thrust our fathers onto the Vietnam stage. And, at the time, it was better not to think about the “what if”.

Living in Clarksville, just across the border from Fort Campbell, Kentucky, the seeds of a military vigor were ingrained in our very being.  When our fathers shipped out, we waited for a time, and then we moved on, left to our own devices.

We conducted ourselves as military.  We had rank, the oldest at 11 held the highest rank while the youngest served as buck privates.

I was the general. 

Protection of our home base was the order of the day. And my words were marked that “no one was taking our fort”.

And, moving through the creeks, the fields, and the woods, our scouts took notice of everything, of every opposing fort, of every opportunity to destroy. When we found a fort, we planned and then moved in because destroying their fort was our reason for being.

And in our subdivision that was our way of thinking.    

Born and bred, we were little warriors. – Narrator.

Greenway Court Theatre presents a revival of Not Man Apart Physical Theatre Ensemble’s Ajax in Iraq written by Ellen McLaughlin and directed by John Farmaesh-Bocca through August 14, 2016 and nicely produced by Jason Bruffy, Laura Covelli, and Aaron Hendry.

McLaughlin’s Ajax in Iraq is a visceral experience, brutal at times, and quietly dramatic.  McLaughlin is forceful in her unyielding message to project culpability, and to recognize the ultimate failings of an unscrupulous political groundswell working hand in hand with their corporate cronies that in fact destroyed a social political order.   

And, trickling down, in the obnoxious swell are the boots on the ground, soldiers that are not immune to violence which projects the worst traits of humanity when one occupies another nation.  McLaughlin’s message fills the soul with a blood boiling rage, one that wants to join in the fury, and the other that wants to recognize the truth for what it is.  

I was suspicious that dramatic theatre could do this.  

For the sake of combining a figure in Greek Mythology and characters in the play, I present you with this backstory:

Ajax (Aaron Hendry) was a powerful dark killing machine, a man with muscular thighs, as wide as his torso, and thick powerful arms, which could swing a blade and cut a man in half before he could think.  His eyes painted black projected a warrior’s rage and at times presented a vacuous stare.  The ineloquent manner of speaking, his warrior grunts, were not enough to win him the armor of the now deceased Achilles.

Never injured in battle, Ajax killed every living foe. Mythology says he killed twenty-eight men in all, all in the taking of Troy.

But his battle was not just on opposing forces; Ajax oppressed women with an obscure ferocity behind the folding of his tent. A man with this much ferocity was not to be disturbed despite the screams heard from the encampment on the other side.  

Ajax was a warrior who operated in the darkness of bad thoughts, using his blade to end the light emanating from opposing beings, stopping briefly to witness the elegiac gurgling of his victims. Any opposing forces, anything that breath, or pumped blood, were fair game.

Inarticulate, his screams represented his intentions and the blade projected the means by which he carried out his objectives.  So powerful were his profound thrusts in battle that the wretchedness of that region lingers and the cradle of civilization carries on as though little has changed.

Little has changed in Iraq, swayed by the leaders of today, the troops amassed, looked for the weapons of mass destruction, found none, and now the battle is amongst us, within us, and beyond us with no end in sight.  

John Farmanesh-Bocca, the director and choreographer, provides us with a sweeping look of Iraq through the ages, tying the mythological figures to the real life soldiers of the day, while giving us a history lesson as well. How the choreography works to tie the present day phalanx of soldiers to the past works to a lesser degree, push ups, rolling around on the floor, chest slapping, one is not completely sure. Fun to watch, and all part of the Not Man Apart Physical Theatre’s physicality, but how does that connect to the through line of the play?

Aaron Hendry projects Ajax as a warrior, through and through, mindless with the exceptions of his attention only to the destruction of things in his path.  A marvelous choice for Hendry that Ajax becomes disjointed and alive with warm blood on his being. How his fist managed to survive the ordeal of slamming against the hard stage is beyond my comprehension. Still Hendry does a wonderful job.  He is an amazing actor.

Courtney Munch portrays a woman with many layers and much strength as A.J.  Unfortunately A.J. is an abused soldier who is not able to find a solution to the abuse, and who also knows that approaching someone to help will jeopardize her career. It is a no win situation for this character and Munch does a fantastic job in this very dramatic turn.

Joanna Rose Bateman

Joanna Rose Bateman gives us a different flavor of Athena, goddess of wisdom, courage, and inspiration, in that she gives us a goddess as someone who is wry, sardonic and intelligent slightly mocking the misgivings of her human underlings.  It is a role Bateman really latches onto as she utilizes very strategic choices.  Her voice is flawless, her moments powerful, and her singing voice is formidable.  She is captivating.

Alina Bolshakova is Tecmessa, wife of Ajax, mother of Eurysaces. Knowing this provides a better understanding of the relationships than was performed this night. First a slave, later a wife, she is someone who tries desperately to save her husband. In the overall scheme of things, one wonders how this character fits in both Tecmessa’s time and present day.   

Laura Covelli gives us a better understanding of the region as Gertrude Bell, an English woman who helped shape British imperial policy in Iraq and the Middle East. Covelli’s manner is precise in her ability to convey the British policy and the idea of the play.  Bell shows us in a roundabout way that the educated and the mapmakers are the ones who control the world. Covelli gives a marvelous performance.  

Sydney A. Mason as Mangus does well.  She has a very nice natural presence, one suitable for not only theatre but for film as well and has a lovely voice.  

James Bane gives a very credible performance as Sergeant, possibly because of his military experience, and he also has a very believable presence on stage. This particular role has parallels to the character Ajax and Bane should provide a resemblance to that character in manner and deed so that the characters are tied together, repeating history.

Jason Barlaan also does some good work as Teucer.  Barlaan is a former marine and fits well with his role on stage.

Ronin Lee is exceptional as Captain, a man who has come to grips with his war effort, becoming much wiser only after losing his arm in the war. Lee’s voice is strong and his manner is incomparable.

Zach Davidson as Pisoni has a very good look on stage.  It was a very subtle performance but one that really rings true and manages to hit home.

Overall, the acting was superb, and the rest of the supporting cast played major roles.  Their voices were strong and they presented an incredible backstory. It is evident that a lot of work went into making this production.  Also this production was very successful, representing the diverse makeup of our military force.  The remaining supporting casts are Jessica Carlsen as Sickles, Kendall Johnson as Therapist, Jolene Kim as Abrams, Frederick Ramsel Jr. as Charles, and Olivia Trevino as Rebo.

Jones Welsh is the understudy for Ajax but did not perform on this night. Welsh is also the Co-Artistic Director of Not Man Apart and also one of the Producers.    

Other members of this wonderful crew are as follows:

Stage Manager – Niki Armato
Costume Design – Stephanie Dunbar
Stylist – Catherine Baumbardner
Map Design – Courtney Jordan Bindel
Graphic Design – Joel Piazza
Lighting Design – Joey Guthman
Sound Design – John Farmanesh-Bocca w/Adam Phalen

The show closes on the night I am posting.  If you get a chance to see it, in another carnation, run, run, run, and take a vet.

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