BWW Reviews: Not Man Apart Addresses the Horrors of Warfare and its Aftermath in AJAX IN IRAQ
Not Man Apart Physical Theatre Ensemble opens its 2014 season with a Los Angeles premiere of AJAX IN IRAQ by award-winning playwright Ellen Mclaughlin, directed and choreographed by NMA artistic director John Farmanesh-Bocca. The play intertwines the important and timely issue of sexual abuse against women in the military with the parable of the great warrior Ajax, which is said to be one of the first and oldest stories to openly portray the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. Performances continue at the Miles Memorial Playhouse in Santa Monica through June 1.
In the Iliad, Ajax is notable for his abundant strength and courage. He commands his army wielding a huge shield made of seven cow-hides with a layer of bronze. Wielding an enormous spear as a weapon and leaping from ship to ship, Ajax held off the Trojan armies virtually single-handedly, gaining the respect of his fellow soldiers. Most notably, Ajax is not wounded in any of the battles described in the Iliad, and he is the only principal character on either side who does not receive substantial assistance from any of the gods who take part in the battles.
After the magical armor of his cousin Achilles is awarded to Odysseus, the hero Ajax is so insulted he wants to kill the sons of Atreus (Agamemnon and Menelaus). But Athena intervenes and clouds his mind and vision. He goes to a flock of sheep and slaughters them, imagining they are the Achaean leaders, including Odysseus and Agamemnon. When he comes to his senses, covered in blood, he realizes that what he has done has diminished his honor, and he decides to kill himself rather than live in shame.
The Greek hero Ajax (Aaron Hendry) weaves his way in and out of AJAX IN IRAQ, pushed to the brink of insanity by Athena (Emma Bell), the Greek Goddess of Wisdom and Warfare. Both actors are magnificent in their roles with Hendry displaying the legendary strength and power, as well as the incredible physical presence, of Ajax, while Bell manages to weave more than a hint of sexuality to get her way with the men. She certainly takes her role as the goddess of heroic warfare to heart, urging on the bloody battle between Ajax and Odysseus (Eric Naficy Dyrhsen).
Courtney Munch portrays A.J., a current day American solider stationed in Iraq who proves herself a hero in combat. But she suffers sexual abuse at the hands of her company Sergeant (the pompous and overhearing Dash Pepin), leading her to suffer the same fate as Ajax. The scenes between Munch and Pepin are devastating to watch, seeing such a strong woman forced into submission by a superior officer, and then having to remain silent about the crime. The accomplished actors handle the brutal scenes honestly and effectively, often in silhouette inside an Army tent.
"Last year, more active-duty soldiers killed themselves than died in combat," says director Farmanesh-Bocca. "After a decade of deployments to war zones, the Pentagon is bracing for things to get much worse. Light must be shed on the subject. Action must be taken to return our veterans home, unscathed by our own people or by neglect. The action we take as artists is to produce Ellen's electrifying play to get the conversation going. This play's unique time traveling connection perfectly demonstrates how modern warfare has changed so much since ancient times, and yet not at all."
Also in the cast, each playing multiple roles as the story flashes back and forth between the Iraq and Trojan Wars, are Steven Beaudion, Alina Bolshakova, Chelsea Brynd, Laura Covelli, Eric Naficy Dyrhsen, West Perkinson, Brandon Hitchcock, Ashphord Jacoway, Dash Pepin, Camron Robertson, Carol Sparkman, Ivanna Wei and Jonathan Wong. Most impressive are the choreographed ensemble numbers with each group combat boot stomp shaking the walls as a physical expression of their mutual anger against circumstances of battle. The overwhelming movement will reverberate in your soul.
Lighting designer Jessica Kohn focuses attention on actors positioned around the set with spotlights, effectively driving the audience's attention to the soldiers' soul-baring reflections on the horrors of warfare.
With a mission to create highly athletic and innovative theatrical events which are both life affirming and consciousness expanding, and to establish a new kind of physical theater genre that is exciting, relevant, accessible and all inclusive, NMA strives to be one of the premier physical theater ensembles of the Americas. AJAX IN IRAQ is certainly another fine example of the group's futuristic and highly innovative theatrical presentations.
NMA encourages everyone to support New Directions for Veterans, a Los Angeles-based group which seeks to empower veterans and facilitate their successful return to families and society. The need is real as California has the largest population of homeless veterans in the nation, nearly 50,000 with about 13,000 in Los Angeles. For more information, call (310) 914-4045 or visit www.NDVets.org
AJAX IN IRAQ continues through June 1, with performances on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 5 p.m. Tickets are $25; Student Rush Thursdays: $10 at the door, subject to availability. The Miles Memorial Playhouse is located at 1130 Lincoln Blvd, Santa Monica, CA 90403 (just north of Wilshire Blvd.). Free event parking is available at the underground garage serving the 808 Wilshire Building, entry on Lincoln (just south of Wilshire Blvd.). For reservations and information, visit www.NotManApart.com or call (818) 618-4772. Running time is 100 minutes without an intermission.
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