The A.R.T.'s 21st-century Ajax

Soldier's  tale
By CAROLYN CLAY  |  February 22, 2011

Carolyn Clay review's The A.R.T.'s 21st-century Ajax
LIVE OR DIE Linda Powell’s best efforts can’t convince Brent Harris. 
An embittered soldier who snaps and commits a heinous act of violence? It's a wonder Sophocles's Ajax isn't performed as often as Hamlet. So kudos to the American Repertory Theater for realizing the uncanny relevance of this early work by the author of the Oedipus trilogy and presenting it in a clearheaded, colloquial translation by Charles Connaghan and a contemporary military setting steeped in blood and rather bloodless civic discussion (at the Loeb Drama Center through March 13). Obie-winning director Sarah Benson's production substitutes a looming canopy of Cantabrigian talking heads for Sophocles's chorus of Salaminians. And it can't solve the dramatic problem of the antihero's suicide a little past the halfway mark, leaving the survivors to turn his story into a mini-Antigone wherein the issue is whether he's to get buried. But the staging, spread across a shambles of a mess hall in which the goddess Athena perches on a Coke machine, is tense, straightforward, and swift — and it plays its raging case of Attic PTSD for all it's worth.

Ajax was the Greeks' Big Man at Troy, second only to Achilles in valor and strength. When the latter took it in the heel, Ajax risked his life to get the body off the field. But when Achilles's god-forged armor was awarded to Odysseus, Ajax went berserk and set out to murder his own generals, including the perceived usurper of his prize. Athena then afflicted the avenging soldier with a "diseased mania" in which he mistook the troops' livestock for his enemies and went on a rampage of butchering and torturing cows and sheep. It is in the wake of this carnage that the play (which would not garner PETA approval) begins.

At the ART, following an expository conversation between Odysseus (Ron Cephas Jones) and an officious, amplified Athena (Kaaron Briscoe), Brent Harris's Ajax enters, panting and whooping, soaked to the dog tags in gore, still in the grip of his murderous ecstasy. But we (represented by chorus leader Remo Airaldi and the concerned grid of community members appearing on video as the chorus) soon learn from concubine Tecmessa that Ajax has come to his senses. When he lunges back into the scene, backed by the eviscerated carcass of a very large cow, he bemoans his former glory and present disgrace, ominously noting that a dishonored man should not wish for a long life. However, cajoled by Tecmessa, the chorus leader, and the solicitous talking heads (one of whom asks whether he needs to talk to a therapist), he resolves to swallow his pride and bow both to the gods and to military authority. Relieved, the chorus applauds this politic address, which may or may not be sincere.

Ajax has two long speeches: this public renunciation of arrogance and the soliloquy in which he asks death-bed favors of the gods and takes leave of the natural world before falling on his sword. In the riveting Harris's delivery, both are quite moving. In fact, the humiliated warrior is surprisingly sympathetic, especially when compared to the hard-ass Menelaus and Agamemnon of James Joseph O'Neil and Thomas Derrah. And as war prize and helpmeet Tecmessa, Linda Powell (who, as daughter of Colin Powell, should know something about this business of living with war and soldiers) proves both tender and battle weary.

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