by SOPHIE KERMAN & ANNA ROSENSWEIG
Something about the transition from fall to winter – the impending gloom that is just around the corner – has made the local theater scene shift from playful and speculative to downright brutal. Two adaptations of Greek tragedies opened this past weekend – and not just any Greek tragedies, but Sophocles’ Ajax and Aeschylus’ The Suppliants, both of which feature large-scale massacres as a central plot point. Despite a quantity of death which could seem gratuitous in lesser hands, the Frank Theatre‘s staging of Ajax in Iraq and Savage Umbrella‘s The Ravagers both aim (with different successes and failures) to use this extreme violence to provoke thought and conversation around issues of war, complicity, and the toll of violence on all parties involved.
Ajax in Iraq, which premiered in New York City just this past June, juxtaposes the legend of Ajax – the Greek war hero who, driven insane by Athena, unleashes a torrent of fury on a herd of livestock – with contemporary American soldiers and veterans, whose psychological scars often fly tragically under the radar of both the public and their own friends. On a set by Joseph Stanley that effectively merges the ancient with the modern, we are asked to consider the most extreme types of damage that war can inflict on the human mind.
The key players in this drama deliver some truly outstanding performances. As Ajax, Rich Remedios strikes the perfect balance between absolute brutality and awareness of how much this violence has cost. Katie Guentzel brings a rich voice and strong emotional control to A.J., Ajax’s modern-day counterpart. And some of the supporting actors build profound characters with relatively few lines (Joy Dolo and Dawn Brodey stand out as specialists in A.J.’s unit, and Tessa Flynn is particularly moving as the wife of an Iraq veteran suffering from PTSD).
Playwright Ellen McLoughlin grapples with a lot, thematically; in that sense, the play was a strong choice for director Wendy Knox, who takes pride in choosing challenging and politically-engaged work. There are times, however, that both McLoughlin and Knox let the play get away from them. The connection between Ajax and A.J. feels underutilized; for the number of difficult questions that could have been asked – for instance, who is the Athena of the Iraq war? – very few of them actually were. There is also a strangely exhibitionistic baring of souls that at times feels too self-critical to be plausible for the character and the situation. Similarly, some events – including a staged rape scene – seem to be aimed more at fanning the flames of the audience’s outrage than with communicating new ideas.
And, by and large, this tactic works: the production is certainly affecting on an emotional level. I wonder, however, about whether an audience member at the Frank – who, in all likelihood, is already concerned about ongoing U.S. involvement in Iraq – will walk away from the play asking new questions, or whether the play simply reaffirms a pre-existing condemnation of the Iraq war. As important as it is to recognize the extreme sacrifices made by both soldiers and their families, I can’t help but wish the Frank would ask something more of its audience.
For its part, Savage Umbrella asks its audience to explore the costs of violence with The Ravagers, a show that holds much promise, but doesn’t quite deliver. A version of Aeschylus’ The Suppliants, the show approaches questions of uncivil disobedience through the story of a tyrannical father who instructs his 50 daughters to murder their husbands on the night of their collective wedding to his brother’s 50 sons. (Strangely, Savage Umbrella doesn’t mention Aeschylus’ play in its program notes, although they do reference this classical antecedent in their press releases and on their web-site.) Director Blake E. Bolan seems to want to use this fascinating story as a means through which to articulate a broader critique of tyranny and repression. Unfortunately, this critique never quite emerges, and the show’s broad orientation crowds out more particular investigation of the decisions and fates of these 50 women.
What are the implications of violence that is at once general and personal? This is the kind of question that “The Ravagers” opens up but stops short of really dealing with in a pointed way. This is in part due to staging choices that isolate the sisters’ violence, making each murder too much of an individual act. It’s not that some of these scenes aren’t powerfully acted and creatively staged, they are. (Kathryn Fumie is particularly compelling as the sexually curious Amymone, and Paul Rutledge is sympathetic as the somewhat bewildered Midanus, her husband for a few hours.) But the decision to allow the audience up-close and almost-too-personal glimpses into their short relationship and his death works against the accumulated horror of the mass-scale violence that the show needed to create in order to be effective.
The distinct portraits of the sisters offered in the second act comes as somewhat of a surprise and clashes with the extensive care taken in the first act to portray them as a horde of young women, caught in the endless rhythms of their father’s rule. Scenes of the sisters’ daily habits are some of the play’s best, and its most eerie. The women’s daily prayers, lessons, and meals are punctuated only by the brief visits of their “glorious” father Danaus, played expertly by Scott Keely. These frequent repetitions of simultaneous gestures and chants are both visually interesting and disturbing.
It’s in these scenes of sorority that the cavernous Hollywood Theater becomes more than a stage or set, and emerges as a character all its own. Savage Umbrella seats the audience in the higher tier of chairs, and uses the lower tier, as well as the raised stage, as platforms for the play’s action. The sisters perform their routines in the midst of this lower tier, which makes them simultaneously watched and watchful. Using a former seating area as part of the stage also highlights the age and wear of this historic theater. With pealing paint and no indoor plumbing, the Hollywood is almost ruinous, though it still retains much of its art-deco style beauty (first constructed in 1935, the theater is currently up for sale). Such conditions as these resonate surprisingly well with language from the play that describes Danaus’ decrepit-yet-magnificent palace.
Perhaps it’s not so surprising that the Hollywood Theater serves as a chillingly appropriate milieu for such a story. Despite our concerns about both “The Ravagers” and “Ajax in Iraq,” both productions highlight Greek tragedy’s continued bearing on contemporary war and violence, and often do so in startling and painful ways. Welcoming these explorations of the ancient in the modern, we only wish both companies had taken them further.