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Ajax in Iraq Review Round-Up

Thursday, June 30, 2011 0 comments

(Photo: Isaiah Tanenbaum. Pictured: Tiffany Clementi, Lori E. Parquet)

Yikes! The show's been closed for half a week and I still haven't posted responses to most of the reviews. Rather than getting stuck in yesterday, I'm going to round up all those I missed here and now. It doesn't quite do justice to the thoughtful and often moving reviews we received, but time is moving faster than ever.

What follows are links, favorite quotes, and quick thoughts.

Helen Shaw, Time Out New York: "There is genuine fear, anger and ecstasy in these characters. Real sweat trickles down their faces; real flies circle over them."

(There were more flies than usual that night due to the food-based blood, our most brilliant accidental design decision). I was mostly just thrilled that Helen came back for another round after Dog Act, and wish only she had more of a word count to go into more detail, especially about choices that teetered on bad taste. With only a single preview, there are many choices I wish I'd had more time to finesse - or reimagine completely - based on what I learned from audiences.

Anita Gates, New York Times: "The Flux Theatre Ensemble’s fervent and valiant production of Ms. McLaughlin’s sophisticated “Ajax in Iraq” makes its case in two ways."

As much as I might like to pretend this review didn't mean the world to us, it meant something approaching its circumference. Fervent and valiant...those words in particular still put a smile on my face, because they touch on the passion this extraordinary cast brought to the play every single night. And the audiences that this review brought in were essential, though they were not enough to overcome a particularly tough second week. We fell short of our goal, and of our numbers for Dog Act (more on those disappointing numbers in another post).

Michael Roderick, BroadwayWorld.com: "Flux consistently raises the bar when it comes to Indie Theatre and this piece has put that bar somewhere in the sky. An explosive 90 minutes with no intermission, Ajax in Iraq will live on in the minds and hearts of its audiences long after its all to short run."

For me, this was the most moving of our reviews, coming as it did from the amazing producer and director Michael Roderick. I especially appreciate that he noticed the chair slams and grains of sand; we did indeed sweat every single detail.

Leigh Hile, Scenes in the City: "With haunting eloquence, Ajax in Iraq somehow links past and present, tormentor and tormented, and pulls us from our comfortable chairs a little closer to the sting of the desert and the terror of battle. You'll leave rattled a little and questioning a lot."

Leigh is not only a theatre blogger, but a director who has worked with us at Flux Sundays and our last Have Another. I admire what I've seen of her work, and find her a particularly eloquent blogger. Her thoughts about the play's structure are well worth the read.

There's a lot more to talk about regarding this play, but with my late lunch rapidly dwindling, I leave you with one last plea to vote for the play and artists for the New York Innovative Theater Awards.

Thank you from all of us Flux to everyone who saw Ajax in Iraq, and everyone who made it possible. We are deeply grateful to have had the chance to share this play with you.
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Ajax in Iraq Review: Haytham Elhawary, Theatre Is Easy

Tuesday, June 21, 2011 1 comments

(Photo: Isaiah Tanenbaum. Pictured: Joshua Koopman)

Starting to catch up! Our next review is by Haytham Elhawary from Theatre is Easy, and it's lovely. He begins with a quote from Plato I was unfamiliar with that fits the play painfully well: "Only the dead have seen the end of war." I also appreciate that he notices how much of the play is concerned with the fine line between heroism and cruelty, a large theme of the play that others have responded to less strongly.

His one criticism is likewise interesting: he thinks the play could do with less overlapping of A.J. and Ajax's story. Do you agree? I find the collision of the two stores so satisfying, especially the scene when they speak as one; and I love how the end of both stories lay on top of each other, as if only a layer of sand and time kept them apart. I don't think those moments would be possible without the amount of intertwining leading up to them - what do you think?

My favorite quote is the one that ends the review:
Ajax in Iraq does an excellent job of presenting a social critique against war combined with the story of its effects on the individual lives of a group of soldiers. If you want to see a play that will have you thinking about its story for many days to come, this will definitely stir your conscience.

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Ajax in Iraq Review: Patricia Contino, Flavorpill

Monday, June 20, 2011 0 comments

(Photo: Isaiah Tanenbaum. Pictured: Sol Crespo, Chinaza Uche, Anna Rahn)

This is, I think, Flavorpill's 4th review with us, and looking them over, I notice that I've made the same "short but sweet" comment every time. I'm so original! They do, however, manage to pack a punch in a few words, as in:
How sad that politicians never bother studying the lessons theatre teaches. They would learn much from Ellen McLaughlin's powerful Ajax in Iraq.
We're psyched to have been made an Editor's Pick (note the handsome blue star), and grateful Flavorpill keeps coming back. So read the whole review, and then get your tickets (last week!), and then leave your own thoughts here.
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Ajax in Iraq Review: Aaron Riccio, That Sounds Cool

Sunday, June 19, 2011 1 comments

(Photo: Isaiah Tanenbaum. Pictured: Mike Mihm, Raushanah Simmons)

Argh, I am so far behind in my responses to reviews! There is now Flavorpill, Theatre is Easy, Time Out New York, the New York Times and BroadwayWorld.com to respond to (am I missing any of them?)

Excuse: I have been in L.A. for the TCG National Conference, and it has been a whirlwind. I am going to try to catch up this week, and finish all responses before the show closes.

Aaron Riccio is more than a critic to Flux; he has become a highly valued, impartial outside eye. If you're wondering why he occupies that unofficial position in our collective consciousness, read closely his review of Ajax in Iraq. Though a mixed review of the play, it's an example, I think, of balanced and thoughtful criticism.

He acknowledges the play's social function, considering the meaning of the play's content as well as its form; he cites specific examples from the text for most of his criticisms; he brings in the history of our work; and he allows the reader space to form their own conclusions as to whether they want to see the show.

It is one of the hardest things to do as an artist and critic - leaving room for the audience/reader to fill with their own meaning. Many reviews so pulverize or praise a production, that when your own experience is different, the review seems written from another planet - "did we see the same play?"

Good reviewers, however, have the confidence in their critical opinion to leave room for the reader; the review has the feeling of a dialogue, rather than a diatribe. As an example, consider this paragraph, which I excerpt in full:
From a dramaturgic perspective, this is all interesting and perhaps necessary, given the lack of adult education and the steep divide between those in the military and those not; it may be useful to be hit over the head with how little America learned from the previous creation/occupation of Iraq, courtesy of Gertrude Bell (Anna Rahn) and a British captain (Matthew Archambault): "Military occupations go wrong, they just do. Even when they begin with the best of intentions." But it's not as effective as the less-direct, casual (and causal) scenes that focus on AJ's peers, particularly her best friend, Connie Mangus (Chudney Sykes). You can feel the tension when it's not being discussed, see it in the way that Mangus and her buddies play five-card stud with worn, sandy cards and bullets for chips. Ask yourself which is a more convincing argument against gender stereotypes: examples quoted in a professor's careful lecture or a sloppy group of soldiers sitting around in their fatigues, joking about their horrible childhood fashion senses (cowboy boots and a dashiki), laughingly throwing sexist jokes ("Gotta be a bitch, a whore, or a dyke") back at their male counterparts.
Note the use of "ask yourself"midway in the paragraph; the way he uses the story of the soldier scene to make his case for him; the hedged bets at the beginning that allow the reader room to argue or agree based on their own experience.

It's a great review, even though it's a mixed review. So, read the whole thing here, then get your tickets, and leave your own thoughts on the play here. Only one more week!
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Ajax in Iraq Review: Michael Bettencourt, OffOffOnline

Tuesday, June 14, 2011 0 comments

(Photo: Isaiah Tanenbaum. Pictured: Stephen Conrad Moore)
I'm falling a wee bit behind on these! For those who don't want to wait, go on and read That Sounds Cool, Flavorpill, and Theatre is Easy. I hope to respond to all three before the end of the week.

Michael Bettencourt from OffOffOnline is our fifth review, and our third mixed review in a row (never fear, Flux lovers, we have two raves to look forward to). This review echoes some of the concerns of the past two, questioning the earnestness of intention and complexity of structure. One insight I found particularly interesting, however, is the idea that A.J. and Ajax's stories are incompatible due to the differing political contexts of the Iraq and Trojan War.

I don't believe that's true, primarily because A.J. and Ajax are not thematically united by their relationship to their wars at a political level, but at a personal, primal one. Both are betrayed by a commanding officer; both commit atrocities as a result; both find the madness of those acts invalidate their core identities; and both arrive at the same epiphany and solution. The political differences in how wars were fought is not the animating force of these core stories, though it is certainly a central theme of the play as a whole. What do you think?

Thankfully, there's a some positive in this review, as well, and my favorite quote is:
Will Lowry's set (a map of the area covered by sand, broken concrete blast walls) and Kia Roger's lighting are superb, as is Asa Wember's sound design.
I couldn't agree more: the level of work our design and production team accomplished at the level of resources Flux has is...well, superb.

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Ajax in Iraq Review: Clifford Lee Johnson III, Backstage

Saturday, June 11, 2011 0 comments

(Photo: Isaiah Tanenbaum. Pictured: Mike Mihm)

Back in the day, Backstage was our first major reviewer, positively reviewing both Life is a Dream and A Midsummer Night's Dream when not many other critics were coming our way. Then, there was a long, dry, spell after the Angel Eaters Trilogy, and though they interviewed us for Jacob's House, we haven't been reviewed by them since 2008.

Happily, that spell is over, broken by a well-written review from Clifford Lee Johnson III. Like Jon Sobel, he finds that the dual stories and diversity of voices get in each others way, derailing the play's momentum. Additionally, he finds the play's earnestness to be problematic, a refrain noted by OffOffOnline (I'll be posting that tomorrow). Finally, he feels the play hits the "war is very bad" note too simplistically. All of these worthwhile thoughts deserve some consideration.

I can definitely see how for some, the ceaseless curiosity of the play's interrogation of the war, moving as it does across time, space and character with passing regard for traditional narrative, might feel like momentum wasted rather than conceptual territory gained.

However, much of the dual stories overlap each other, quite literally. The tension of A.J.s blood-discovery scene is enhanced by sharing the stage with Ajax's self-same scene. The play is a collision of two stories, until, in their final moments, they move effortlessly, almost as one. My guess is that the two stories don't actually get in each others way; but rather, that feeling of obstruction comes from the detours the plot makes elsewhere. What do you think?

I'm also less certain about the play's earnestness. The nature of direct address can create the illusion of honesty between character and audience, but that is dependent upon the reliability of the character. Athena is not exactly a trustworthy guiding deity for a play; indeed, she promises at the beginning she won't make us go into the tent, and then brings the horrors of that tent into our laps. Because she presides over the play, the devil is given its due, and as much time is spent with the horrors of war, an equal amount of time is spent dealing with the pleasures of cruelty.

This is one of the fascinating things about the responses to the play thus far: the gleeful pleasure of Ajax in his madness, the beauty of the Kali invocation, the power of the Haka dance, the seduction of the mud creatures dream, and the uneasy nightmare sequences of the red torture tent (the voices in the dark) and the NVG goggles scene; all of these moments in the play where the power of letting cruelty into your mind and the pleasure of inflicting harm on others; somehow, those scenes may be landing less forcefully than the scenes where the consequences of cruelty are dealt with. This may simply be a product of where these scenes fall in the narrative sequence, or it may mean I did not stage them clearly or forcefully enough (though they are some of the scenes I'm proudest of).

Suffice to say, I think calling this play earnest misses its deeper ironies. War is more than just very bad in Ajax in Iraq; it is also deeply, troublingly human, and like all of our darker human impulses, there is a profound pleasure in giving into it.

Finally, while the play does clearly feel that "war is very bad", there is nothing simple about that feeling. The horrors of war are multi-faceted and complex, and the play does not short change them. For example, war may be bad, but many soldiers miss the sense of purpose and belonging when they return home, and so come back for multiple tours. That is not a simple thing, and it's just one of the many Gordian knots the play wrestles with about the soldier's experience. Cumulatively, the sense of the play is that "war is very bad", but it is in the precise details of what exactly makes it so that gives Ajax in Iraq it's power.

Or at least, that's what I think. It may be that the onslaught of ideas and images in the play, when viewed at a single sitting, resolve from complexity and irony into the more straightforward experience Johnson describes. What was your experience of the dual stories, complexity, moral ambiguity and ironies of the play? Paella or broth?

There also some lovely positive quotes about the play, and I share this:

Lori E. Parquet brings fire and fear to Tecmessa, Ajax's war bride, making her an individual we understand despite the vast span of time and culture between us. Tiffany Clementi's brief scene as an agonized wife who no longer understands or loves her traumatized husband eloquently brings home the cost of war to the families of veterans. And Mike Mihm humanizes his Odysseus, allowing him to be as appalled by Athena's actions as we are.
Here, here. There's also a must-read quote about Will Lowry's work as set designer, but I'll leave that for you to find. And I very much hope that this means that the goodly reviewers of Backstage have returned to Flux to stay.

So, read the whole thing, then get your tickets here, and then leave your own thoughts on the play here. Read the full story

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Ajax in Iraq Review: Jon Sobel, Blogcritics

Friday, June 10, 2011 1 comments

(Photo: Isaiah Tanenbaum. Pictured:Stephen Conrad Moore, Christina Shipp)

Jon Sobel of Blogcritics has reviewed everything since Pretty Theft (except for Jacob's House, I believe), and so it was great to have him return for his mixed but fair-minded review of Ajax in Iraq. His review touches on some of the exciting challenges of the play, including the fact that there are four prologues to the play before a scene between characters begins the story.

Each of these prologues provides a different angle: Athena lends the timeless mythic viewpoint, the American soldiers (we've dubbed them Alpha through Foxtrot) provide the current look from the boots on the ground, Gertrude Bell and the American Captain give the perspective of the decision makers, and Connie Mangus provides the deeply personal memories of a single soldier. The characters of each of these four opening movements have the same essential action: to explain, defend, or come to terms with the actions that led us the to the tragic dual stories at the center of the play.

There a lot of little things we've done to make these four dimensions feel like they emerge from a single fabric: for example, the positioning of the soldiers at the end of Alpha-Foxtrot is the same as the positioning of the soldier's in A.J.'s unit at the end of the play. Athena and the Captain (the actor is now playing the Minister) also overlap their starting positions. This is one of the many ways we built visual and sonic leitmotifs that help incarnate in a simple, visceral way the complex, layered text.

Did it work? It does for me - the four opening movements widen the play's turf, so that when A.J. and Ajax grapple with their fates, they do so on a terrain that is mythic, contemporary, political, and personal.

Much also hinges upon whether the direct address feels like a lecture, or a scene between the character and the audience. We spent much of our time in rehearsal really reinforcing that conversation with the audience, trying to create the feeling of a living moment being mutually explored.

My favorite quote has both praise and an intriguing criticism:
A few powerful scenes, mostly centered on the ongoing "officer rape" of a female soldier known as AJ (the affecting Christina Shipp) by her male sergeant, hit home, and the impressive Stephen Conrad Moore makes a suitably tragic Ajax. The problem isn't so much that the mythological and modern-day scenes fail to integrate smoothly; it's that neither narrative gains any sustained dramatic purchase. The ratio of telling to showing is badly lopsided.
What do you think? I find the telling to be as essential and dramatic an act as the showing, but maybe I wasn't fully successful in making the direct address feel like a real conversation unfolding between character and audience in the moment.

To chime in with your own two cents (or more), read the whole thing, then get your tickets here, and then leave your own thoughts on the play here.

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Ajax in Iraq Photos

Thursday, June 9, 2011 0 comments

(Photo: Isaiah Tanenbaum. Pictured: Anna Rahn, Tiffany Clementi, Christina Shipp, Lori E Parquet, Sol Crespo)
It was a great to take a moment and look through these photos from the keen-eyed Isaiah Tanenbaum; thanks to the work of our designers, actors and tech help, this really turned out a visually beautiful production (saying so myself, of course). If you haven't seen the show yet, hopefully these pics will inspire, and you can nab them by clicking here.
(Photo: Isaiah Tanenbaum. Pictured: Lori E. Parquet)
(Photo: Isaiah Tanenbaum. Pictured: Christina Shipp, Stephen Conrad Moore)
(Photo: Isaiah Tanenbaum. Pictured: Chudney Sykes)
(Photo: Isaiah Tanenbaum. Pictured: Sol Crespo, Mike Mihm, Matt Archambault)
(Photo: Isaiah Tanenbaum. Pictured: Anna Rahn, Matthew Archambault)
(Photo: Isaiah Tanenbaum. Pictured Raushanah Simmons)
(Photo: Isaiah Tanenbaum. Pictured Tiffany Clementi, Matthew Archambault)
(Photo: Isaiah Tanenbaum. Pictured: Sol Crespo, Chinaza Uche, Anna Rahn)
(Photo: Isaiah Tanenbaum. Pictured: Christina Shipp, Joshua Koopman)
(Photo: Isaiah Tanenbaum. Pictured: Joshua Koopman)
(Photo: Isaiah Tanenbaum. Pictured: Matthew Archambault, Mike Mihm)
(Photo: Isaiah Tanenbaum. Pictured:Lori E. Parquet, Sol Crespo, Chudney Sykes, Tiffany Clementi)
We'll be sharing more pictures as the reviews come in, but why not see the real thing? And if you have already seen it, thank you, and please share your thoughts with us here.
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Ajax in Iraq Review: Will Kenton, Cultural Capitol

Wednesday, June 8, 2011 1 comments

(Photo: Isaiah Tanenbaum. Pictured: Sol Crespo, Lori E Parquet, Chinaza Uche, Tiffany Clementi, Mike Mihm, Chudney Sykes)

Review #2 is out, and we're thrilled that Will Kenton from Cultural Capitol returned. You may want to reread his reviews of Jacob's House and Dog Act to gain a deeper appreciation for the wide frame he brings to his reviews. This latest is no exception, and I was particularly struck by this quote:
Aeschylus and Sophocles were gentlemen soldiers – both are reputed to have come from the Attic nobility where everyone knew everyone else and reputation was everything. McLaughlin, on the other hand, is writing about a modern army made up of mostly working class volunteers who fight and die for infinitely more abstract notions of patriotism and duty.
Happily, there are also some very positive thoughts about the production and Flux in general, so make sure you read the whole thing, then get your tickets here, and then leave your own thoughts on the play here. Read the full story


Audience Response to AJAX IN IRAQ

Tuesday, June 7, 2011 0 comments

This is an open thread for our community of artists and audience to respond to Ajax in Iraq. We have tried this for Dog Act, The Lesser Seductions of History and Jacob's House, and the comments were very insightful. When you see the show, please take a moment to share your thoughts with us in the comments field below.

A few rules of the game: this is a safe space, so while respectful criticism is as welcome as joyful praise, snark and hostility are not. A good rule of thumb is simply to write things you'd feel comfortable saying face to face. While you can choose to post as anonymous, we encourage you to take ownership of your thoughts.

Our sincere thanks, and see you at the theatre!
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Ajax in Iraq Review: Danny Bowes, nytheatre.com

(Photo: Isaiah Tanenbaum. Pictured: Raushanah Simmons)

Review #1 is out, and it certainly is a great way to start. Danny Bowes at nytheatre.com has some truly lovely things to say about Ajax in Iraq, speaking positively of many of the most challenging aspects of the play's reach and complexity. After the long grind of tech and opening, this was a heartening first review to read, and I'm truly grateful for it.

There are many strong quotes, but I'm singling out one in particular for our amazing cast that always brought (and continues to bring) their absolute best to every rehearsal:
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.
So, read the whole review here, and then get your tickets here, and then leave your own thoughts on the play here.

Onward into the second week!
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