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3 Plays On Iraq - Oohrah!, Aftermath, and Ajax In Iraq

Thursday, September 10, 2009 Leave a Comment

During the retreat, Flux was blown away reading Ellen McLaughlin's Ajax In Iraq, a play written for the ART grad program. On Sunday the 6th, Heather and I saw Aftermath at New York Theatre Workshop; last night we saw Bekah Brunstetter's Oohrah! at the Atlantic. 3 plays over 2 weeks that dealt, in one way or another, with the war in Iraq.

The short version is both Aftermath and Oohrah! are well worth seeing, and Ajax in Iraq desperately needs to be produced in New York City.

The longer version is both Aftermath and Oohrah! are in previews, so I shouldn't say too much; but Aftermath is notable for the extraordinary intimacy created by the simplicity of the staging, the engaging honesty of the actors, and the human decency of the stories gathered and shaped by co-creators Erik Jensen and Jessica Blank. This is not a play about war, nor even really a play about its aftermath; this is a play about the lives of these 9 Iraqis, and it is a great compliment to the play that their stories before the invasion have stayed with me as much as their stories after (maskmaking, dermatology, love it!) Perhaps because of the documentary nature of the play, all 9 characters are presented as wholly good people who heroically endure a tragedy - but given the media saturation of Iraqis as a violent people, and the debt our country owes them for the depth of that tragedy, a wholly positive charge may be necessary. There is also a beautiful story about the nature of God making something out of nothing told by the imam Abdul-Aliyy (the wonderful Demosthenes Chrysan) that alone is worth the (on Sunday nights very reasonably priced) admission.

Oohrah! is a mirror image of Aftermath - it follows a soldier (Ron) and his family after he returns from his fourth tour in Iraq. This is a fascinating play for many reasons, but primarily because it looks at lives that don't come together, connections that don't quite happen, dreams left unfulfilled; and so it is constantly undermining your dramatic expectations. SPOILER ALERT (don't keep reading if you haven't seen it) the violence you expect doesn't happen; the secrets you long for are not earth-shattering; all epiphanies are dodged and the play ends on a note of confused longing; Bekah's infinitely quick and corrosive wit is still here, but it now lives in a mostly naturalistic world (naturalistic the way The Cherry Orchard is), and you are left feeling the way the characters do, that some promise was made and left unfulfilled. For the characters, that promise is the heroic promise of service; that those meant to serve this country will be able to do so, and come home to a life equal to that service. A particularly stunning scene unfolds between a barely teenage girl drawn to the military and a Marine with secrets; both find themselves on the outside of that military dream; and there is a heat and longing in that scene that is the heart of what I loved best about this play - go see it!

While both Aftermath and Oohrah! are about the effects of the war, Ajax in Iraq is summons the war itself: its panic and confusion, its heroism and sacrifice, its horror and madness. Even reading the play, we all felt how visceral and shocking it would be played on stage. It is also the most wholly empathetic to our veterans - while Oohrah! looks at the longing to go to war, and Aftermath explores the civilian consequences, Ajax in Iraq gives witness to the consequences for the veterans themselves. It is also the most inventively theatrical of the plays, juxtaposing Greek myth with naturalistic scenes of soldiers playing cards, Maori war dances, direct address from veteran interviews, invocations to Kali, and a haunting service for a fallen soldier. This play needs to be done in New York now.

The sum of these 3 plays proves that not all of our artists are ignoring the huge shadow cast over our civic life by the War in Iraq; but wrestling with it to create beautiful, meaningful theatre. I hope these plays have long lives. Thank you to the artists and to the companies - now go see and produce these plays!

Comment time: if you are familiar with any of these plays, what did you think?
And are there other strong plays out there you would recommend about the war in Iraq? I know David Ian Lee's Sleeper deals beautifully with Afghanistan...


  • Candice Holdorf said:  

    Although I have only read "Ajax in Iraq", I can see by your descriptions of the other two plays that the most compelling aspect of all of these 'war' plays is the specific human element within the global chaos. Where is the common point we can all touch and recognize in the midst of all this horror that we somehow create? It is in the details...the female soldiers sitting around and gabbing about men while playing cards in 'Ajax'...or in Bekah's play, following the ornate tapestry threads of the characters' lives that somehow spin round each other, but never collide in a crash-bang of soul-connection (for when we are caught up in the microcosm of our own sadness and fear, we forget that we are all connected...we forget how to truly love--or sometimes it is only in the midst of that fear that we discover how to love--but this depends on the bravery of the individual).

    Though not an outright 'war' play, I can see the connection within the vain absurdity behind the politicos driving the wars in Johnna's "Lickspittles", which I think would be a fantastic comedy juxtaposed to the ferocious tragedy of "Ajax" (which yes absolutely needs to be produced in NYC).

    I do hope to catch the other two shows soon! These are issues that directly affect us NOW and as artists, it is our responsibility to hold up that candid mirror to society and ask the question "What do we fear to discover when we examine the light and dark of our hearts and behaviors?" Only then will true human evolution take us further along the path of compassion and unity.

  • Matt Archambault said:  

    I loved Ajax...so, so good...

    A couple years ago, I saw Drunk Enough To Say I Love You? at the Public. Its peripherally about the Iraq war...more specifically America's ability to seduce people into supporting it...kind of. The language isn't heightened, but it is abstract and poetic. The play was tough at times, but it spurred lots and lots of thoughts...

    Here's a link to the Times review:

    ...The Public and The Times, is this too mainstream for a self-respecting indie-theatre blog?

  • August Schulenburg said:  


    Can you imagine Lickspittles and Ajax in rep !?!?
    (cue Jason gagging me Osley-style)