Everything about the ART’s production of Sophocles’ (through March 14th at the Loeb) screams contemporary relevance. David Zinn has the cast dressed in desert fatigues and has installed a kind of abandoned mess hall on the Loeb stage. Athena (Kaaron Briscoe) comes dressed in a (politician’s) business suit and speaks through the cafeteria’s distortive PA. A chorus of thirty or so made up of veterans, their wives, what are intended to be regular off-the-street Joes, and a few big shots from around campus including professor Homi Bhaba and Robert Brustein offer insights, reactions, and fragments of their war experiences through overlapping audio channels. Most of the time, they seem to be performing the superfluous task of explaining to us what a tragedy is. Some performances are paired with panel discussions done in conjunction with –a “social impact company” that produces readings of Greek plays (Ajax included). The ART has re-purposed Theater of War Productions’ MO for a Boston audience, glossing a vaguely contemporary Middle East wartime context on top of a play that’s not often produced because its actual context is obscure, relatively alien to modern audiences, and dependent on not an insubstantial amount of background mythology.
In Ajax, Sophocles picks up after Odysseus has been awarded Achilles’ god-forged armor over Ajax. An essential bit of background that would have been common knowledge to Sophocles’ audiences, but unless you scored some free tix off the Classics department’s listserv, you’re probably flipping through the program for this bit of mythology. Even Sophocles’ Trojan War setting requires a little background; names, a basic sense of the timeline. I think generally, in America, we all know about Paris and Helen, but then we skip to end of the story, with the Trojan horse and the Odyssey. Issues of accessibility escalate when Odysseus (Ron Cephas Jones) and Ajax’s half-brother Teucer (Nathan Darrow) start throwing erudite “yo momma” insults back and forth over Ajax’s dead body–these depend on the audience having a knowledge of their family trees. Shakespeare’s histories are like survey courses compared to Sophocles’ graduate seminars.
But, Sophocles is Sophocles and there’s no question as to whether or not his plays deserve production. For me, the big issue here is how director Sarah Benson has tried to push the problems of literacy aside by making Ajax feel contemporary, rather than something not only mythological (as it was the Greeks), but historically and culturally distant. Is it PTSD when, after being screwed out of Achilles’ armor, Ajax tries to kill those who gave it to Odysseus? What about when Athena puts him under a spell so he slaughters livestock instead? Is Ajax and Tecmessa’s relationship a lot like an American military couple, where the wife tries to pull the traumatized husband back to family life? I don’t think so, since Tecmessa and her and Ajax’s son are technically slaves and Ajax killed her father. While Charles Connaghan’s new translation does an excellent job of making the language more familiar and colloquial, Benson asks us to discard too much of the text and its context in making the vague connections to contemporary war she sets up. Perhaps the one thing that really does work, is having Remo Airaldi as the Chorus Leader on stage in foreign correspondent’s garb speaking the actual lines written for the chorus, while the heads on the video go off-script. This is a smart play on the role of the media in modern warfare, I’m just not sure if it’s possible to convey an accurate political message with this twist.
Ajax isn’t really about war or combat at all. The whole thing takes place on the sidelines and the dramatic crux of the text is whether Ajax, following his disgrace and suicide, deserves a proper burial or not. This isn’t something we grapple with today and I, as an audience member, don’t know how to connect this, as well as Classical notions of honor and disgrace, with the politics and issues of today. I hope we’re not supposed to read the right to a proper funeral as a metaphor for better VA benefits.
But, the production is cool. While I didn’t like the content of the video chorus, it’s an aesthetically striking addition to Zinn’s set, and video designer Greg Emetaz did fantastic job editing together the audio and video. After failing on the video front last season with Paradise Lost, the ART has been nailing their projections with The Blue Flower and now this. I think we all expect them to be good at the multimedia stuff. Matt Tierney’s sound design, Zinn’s set, and Justin Townsend’s lighting offer more shock value than the performance itself and I wish these outstanding, creative, and really powerful production elements could have been applied to a project that worked better. Brent Harris (as Ajax) and Nathan Darrow (as Teucer) give fantastic performances that stand out from otherwise spotty acting. Harris doesn’t play up the PTSD line Benson would have us read into the production, but instead gives a straight-up classical and powerful reading, often directing his speeches toward the audience. There’s some strong acting here, and visually and acoustically the show is spectacular, but the ART’s attempt at re-invigorating the text goes too far and gets lost on the way. I wish Connaghan’s new translation had been considered enough.