Ajax in Iraq Review: Haytham Elhawary, Theatre Is Easy
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.
Ajax in Iraq Review: Patricia Contino, Flavorpill
How sad that politicians never bother studying the lessons theatre teaches. They would learn much from Ellen McLaughlin's powerful Ajax in Iraq.
Ajax in Iraq Review: Aaron Riccio, That Sounds Cool
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.
Ajax in Iraq Review: Michael Bettencourt, OffOffOnline
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.
Ajax in Iraq Review: Clifford Lee Johnson III, Backstage
(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
Ajax in Iraq Review: Jon Sobel, Blogcritics
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.
Ajax in Iraq Photos
(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:Lori E. Parquet, Sol Crespo, Chudney Sykes, Tiffany Clementi)
Ajax in Iraq Review: Will Kenton, Cultural Capitol
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
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! Read the full story
Ajax in Iraq Review: Danny Bowes, nytheatre.com
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.