Ajax in Iraq
nytheatre.com review by Danny Bowes
June 4, 2011
The latest from Flux Theatre Ensemble, Ajax in Iraq, continues their fine tradition of producing ambitious, intellectually rigorous, challenging work, and doing so in a terrifically entertaining, engrossing fashion. If Ajax in Iraq seems like an “eat your vegetables” play—a look at the Iraq war through the lens of Sophocles—it's one that'll make vegetarians out of its audience.
The show, using every square inch of the space at the Flamboyan Theater at Clemente Soto Velez to its advantage, opens with a map of Mesopotamia, drawn in sand. A woman in early 20th century period costume then proceeds to draw with a broom what we later realize are borders. The actors proceed to trample the sand all over the space, supporting the text's narratives about the arbitrary way outsiders have conquered and reshaped Mesopotamia (until the present day when it is, of course, known as Iraq) over the course of the 20th and early 21st centuries.
Sophocles's play about legendary hero Ajax is used to comment on, parallel, and frame a story about a present-day female American soldier driven to madness. The show jumps around in history, and is packed with detailed reportage and extensive meditations on the nature of war itself, yet is always perfectly clear and never anything less than completely engrossing. The impression one takes away from the show is of war as a universal constant, unchanging except for the names of the participants.
It's hard to decide where to begin praising Ajax in Iraq, because everything about it works so well. Ellen McLaughlin's script blends multiple seemingly dissonant styles into a harmonious whole, while director August Schulenburg stages the action so seamlessly it preserves that most easily-shattered illusion of the play's action as real, unfolding events.
None of the actors and designers should feel slighted by not being mentioned by name here, as they each are so good, and succeed so well at collectively creating a whole unit, that to praise them all by name would be just a list of names followed by “was great” or “was awesome.” They're all great. They're all awesome. To single out one would be to diminish the magnificent effect of all as a whole.
If the above has been ambiguous in the slightest, a clarifying note: Ajax in Iraq is a really, really good show. For a show that tackles such weighty themes, it's never oppressively heavy, and will almost certainly leave its audience in agreement, “I haven't seen anything quite like that before.” Don't miss this one.