Los Angeles Theater Review: AJAX IN IRAQ (Not Man Apart in Santa Monica)

by Jason Rohrer on May 10, 2014

in Theater-Los Angeles

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THEATRICAL ANTHRAX

In Ellen McLaughlin’s 2011 play Ajax in Iraq, a heroic American soldier, A.J., is raped by her sergeant.  Her Iraq War story parallels that of the Trojan War hero in the Sophocles play, Ajax (elements of which are plonked down atop the contemporary thread): contempt for one’s fellow man in the horrors of extended combat, the mental breakdown accompanying traumatic stress.  Both the mythic and modern heroes suffer tragic fates.  But in order to educate and provoke his audience, Sophocles didn’t just stand and lecture.

Not Man Apart's AJAX IN IRAQ - Photo by

If you’re going to update a classic work, ask why.  If its themes resonate with you, and remind you of contemporary issues, do you really need to rewrite the thing?  Mightn’t that classic text still serve a really pointed, personal director’s vision?  Even a literal one?  You could teach McLaughlin’s Ajax in Iraq in a workshop about how not to write political theater.  Workshop?  Throw in director-choreographer John Farmanesh-Bocca’s new Los Angeles production and you could design a semester’s coursework on the ways not to emulate this show.

Not Man Apart's AJAX IN IRAQ - Photo by.

  • Begin with the note that social intention, in art, is worthless.  It is dangerous.  In the version now at the Miles Memorial Playhouse, intention easily overburdens writer, director, and actors with responsibilities they would meet much more easily if they just told a goddamn story.
  • The show is both self-referential and self-congratulatory, so proud of raising important issues that it rewards itself by indulging tangents fascinating to the creative team.
  • First, the action takes forever to start, and then stops periodically, all to allow actors playing soldiers to address the audience on the wrongness of the American presence in Iraq.  Much of the damning anti-Bush administration stuff in the 2007 documentary No End in Sight is delivered nearly verbatim here.  Talking heads on a stage hasn’t worked onstage since A Chorus Line, if then.  (It’s a pretty unsophisticated technique in filmmaking, as well.)
  • Then the travesty of the Pentagon’s failure to rehabilitate homeless and traumatized veterans gets its own talking-head showstopper.
  • The endemic nature of sexual abuse in the military, one of the most outrageous and important conversations of our American time, is just one subject vying for the heart of this show with:
  • yet another worthy and topical issue: the staggering suicide rate among soldiers and veterans, attributed here to the ravages of war and the indifference of the system.
  • The play ends up being too long and too slight, its borrowed notions trivialized by association with this nonsense.  This, besides the fact that none of those ideas can take stage because they crowd each other into white noise.
  • The writing and direction in this production are both strident and repetitive, substituting Grand Guignol trappings (rape, murder, self-loathing, rejection by one’s peers) for drama.
  • The show is topical yet covers no new ground, offers no revelation, recycling existing ideas in a pedantic, lockstep essay.
  • It uses a classical framework as an excuse not to write a story.
  • It tosses in a soliloquy from historical figure Gertrude Bell (a fine Laura Covelli), an English diplomat involved in the British Empire’s ordering of Mesopotamia, without finding a place for her in the narrative; and without that, she floats in space, another unnecessary bell and whistle – especially given that her contribution is mostly geographic and cultural, like much of the show’s hundred-plus minutes unrelated to any of the show’s other personalities.
  • Most creepy, maybe, is that the show insists on being cute and condescending about grave matters.  The goddess Athena (Emma Bell) acts as chorus to this systemic tragedy, and some of what she has to say is useful.  But she’s written and delivered as a glib, sarcastic co-worker, with the gravity of a boss-from-hell anecdote during a second Wednesday night Appletini.  The choice of “contemporizing” by turning a goddess, the embodiment of war and cruel fate, into an inconsequential wise-ass speaks much about McLaughlin’s opinion of her audience.  (And someone shorten Emma Bell’s sash, for Christ’s sake, before she trips over it.  Give the actress half a chance; she’s already up against so much.)
  • It’s not enough to have an on-the-nose script; Farmanesh-Bocca has to throw it in-your-face.  He choreographs in his signature ensemble-movement style, involving lots of bare-chested, accoutrement-heavy tops and T-shirted twinks doing push-ups to spell out what small, clichéd poetry the script contains.  One section in particular has a lovely symmetry, with Ajax and A.J. interacting to play out an episode that happens to each of them.  The moment would work better if it weren’t redundant – if we hadn’t already seen each of them act out the scene alone to much the same choreography.
  • While there are good performances in here (Aaron Hendry’s Ajax and Courtney Munch’s A.J. are rooted and convincing), this show has more than its share of excruciating acting failures, most of them failing in the same over-the-top, bland, characterless manner, which of course points to a central failure of vision.  Most of the actors who are bad here look to me as if they could be good in something else.

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The best element on the stage is the gigantic anatomical statues in Jessica Kohn’s set, powerful objects literal and yet grotesque enough to work as metaphor.  They are so good that they will also serve as the best metaphor in this review, standing in for the imagination and skill sets lacking from most of the show.

AJAX IN IRAQ - Posterphotos by Anthony Roldan 

Ajax in Iraq
Not Man Apart
Physical Theatre Ensemble
1130 Lincoln Blvd in Santa Monica
scheduled to end on June 1, 2014
for tickets, call 818-618-4772
or www.NotManApart.com

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Dmitry Zvonkov May 13, 2014 at 12:02 pm

Nice.

Reply

Beau Charles May 17, 2016 at 1:46 pm

I disagree with the reviewer. This was a great, timely and important production.

Reply

Jason Rohrer June 29, 2016 at 12:54 pm

Good news for you, Beau – Not Man Apart is putting it up again, July 2016 in Hollywood.

Reply

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