Athena (played by Joanna Bateman) is the goddess of war, and she drives Ajax to madness solely for her own amusement. The play "Ajax In Iraq" runs at the Greenway Court Theater through August 14th. John Ismay/KPCC
For two and a half millennia, the Greek tragedy of “Ajax” has endured as one of the best depictions of war and the psychological damage it can inflict on combatants. And at the Greenway Court Theater in Hollywood, the Ajax story is being reborn.
“Ajax In Iraq,” playing through August 14, reincarnates the classic warrior as A.J., a female Army specialist.
Ajax (played by Aaron Hendry) and A.J. (played by Courtney Munch) circle each other as they contemplate ending their lives. The play "Ajax In Iraq" runs at the Greenway Court Theater through August 14th. John Ismay/KPCC
But in a unique turn, the play shifts back and forth between the walls of ancient Troy and the height of the Iraq War. Timelines blend. We see Sophocles' Ajax character alongside his modern-day counterpart as both become celebrated, though doomed warriors.
A.J. proves herself in battle as the only woman in her company, rescuing dead and wounded comrades from an improvised bomb attack.
But like Ajax, her heroism doesn't save her from deteriorating emotionally and mentally as the play unfolds.
A.J. becomes the victim of repeated sexual assault by her sergeant, which takes a toll to the point where like Ajax, she snaps.
Director John Farmanesh-Bocca said in modernizing the tragedy, having a female lead was a natural choice
“It suggests that this is a reincarnation of Ajax the great warrior,” he said. “In a woman who is a great female combatant, who is a hero, who does incredible things.”
As a play meant to highlight the ugliness of combat, focusing the story line on military sexual assault also seemed a natural way to update the original, Farmanesh-Bocca said.
It's the second time the Not Man Apart Physical Theater Ensemble has performed the play, and this time they made it a point to audition actors who’d actually served in the military themselves.
“We ended up with three awesome guys, so good for their roles," said Aaron Hendry, who plays Ajax.
He said the actors changed the dialogue to sound more like how soldiers actually talk and joke with each other.
Ajax and Odysseus fight as Ajax feels betrayed by Odysseus' selection as Achilles' successor, in the play "Ajax In Iraq." John Ismay/KPCC
The veteran actors stripped out formal and melodramatic lines, and made the dialogue truer to the voices they knew in uniform.
“They brought what really for a civilian population sometimes felt like a crass, sick sense of humor to some things,” Hendry said. “They talked about moments that were getting really heavy handed or very dramatic that they’d be like, ‘that is not how it is’.”
Hendry said the vets bring an intensity to their acting that’s informed by actual experience, as they shift between the role of the classic, white-masked Greek Chorus, and A.J.'s platoon mates in modern day Iraq.
The Chorus contributes to the noisiness of the play, engaging with the music playing through much of the performance—a mix of ethereal instrumentals, rock, and heavy metal.
The ensemble found new life in the Black Keys’ song “Little Black Submarines.” The song isn’t about war. But in this context, you wouldn’t know it.
“Oh can it be / the voices calling me, they get lost and out of time / I should’ve seen it glow, but everybody knows, that a broken heart is blind," the chorus sings before erupting into stomps and rage.
Courtney Munch , who plays A.J., said the updated story resonated with one veteran in particular: her father. He fought in Vietnam but never talked to her about it.
He did, though, come to see her perform.
"My brother said he just had tears streaming down his face," Munch said.
Ajax in Iraq's ending message is an unmistakably political commentary on war. Whether or not one agrees with it, the audience realized that for these two warriors, for the price paid in death and destruction, there's little left to show for it.
This story was produced as part of the American Homefront Project—a collaboration of North Carolina Public Radio-WUNC, KUOW-Seattle, and KPCC-Southern California Public Radio.