Monday, January 16, 2006

Sophocles’ Ajax: Intense Drama at 6th @ Penn

Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger's Newsmagazine. All rights reserved.

Usually, when a play or a movie is described as a “thrill ride” it means it’s a piece of mindless entertainment you can pretty well stay away from — unless you like seeing things being blown up or people spurting blood or getting their heads chopped off with little or no plot justification. But Sophocles’ Ajax, as translated and adapted by Marianne McDonald and playing at 6th @ Penn Theatre through February 5, is a “thrill ride” in the best sense. It’s got action galore — most of it takes place off-stage but the blood leaves its marks on the actors’ bodies — and its central character lives (and dies) so intensely by the sword even Schwarzenegger or Stallone at their career peaks might have blushed at the thought of playing him, but it’s also packed with food for thought. This is a drama about the conflicts between law and faith, between order and freedom, between responsibility and license. It’s also about war and the degree to which it makes monsters out of all who participate in it; about the petty ego issues that lead men to fight and die; and about how violence dirties every cause, no matter how noble initially, in which it is invoked.

The 6th @ Penn company has explored the dramas of ancient Greece for some time now, usually as staged readings under the collective title “Grass Roots Greeks,” but Ajax is a full-scale production (at least by 6th @ Penn standards) and it’s the main play on their late January-early February schedule. (On their “off nights” — Sunday through Wednesday evenings — they’re doing a modern play by Edwin Eigner, but one whose title, Tiresias the Harlot, suggests a Greek connection.) Those familiar with Greek tragedies will know pretty much to expect plot-wise: a character feels slighted in some way and extracts a terrible revenge, which in turn provokes worse and crueler counter-measures until by the end of the story it takes one individual who’s retained his or her sanity through all this — usually a god, though sometimes (as here) a human — to offer the other characters a reasonable way out of the cycle of violence and terror.

Ajax takes place in the later days of the Trojan War. Ajax (Laurence Brown), known as the strongest man in the Greek army and their go-to guy when one of their other leaders was trapped and needed someone with brute strength to get him out, is having a major hissy-fit because he didn’t win the weapons and armor of the recently slain Greek hero Achilles. Instead the arms went to Odysseus, not a particularly effective combatant but a master strategist, because the Greek commanders Agamemmnon (Fred Harlow) and his brother Menelaus (Patricia Elmore Costa) —whose wife Helen started the whole mess in the first place by running off with the Trojan prince Paris a decade earlier — rigged the process in his favor. Ajax decides to extract his revenge by murdering the Greek commanders — only the goddess Athena (Erin McKown) forestalls this by making him delusional, so that he kills a bunch of cattle, sheep and other livestock thinking they’re the Greek leaders.

The play’s main issues arise when Ajax regains his sanity, realizes what he’s done and tries to figure out what to do from there and how he can accept responsibility for his crimes. The matter is complicated by the fact that Ajax and his forces weren’t part of the major Greek army in the first place, but a junior partner in the ancient world’s version of the “coalition of the willing,” and therefore Ajax, his brother Teucer (Brandon Walker), his slave mistress turned wife Tecmessa (Morgan Trant) and his sailors (Zach Guzik and Tara Donovan) start questioning whether Agamemmnon has any right to give them orders. Eventually Ajax commits suicide, but the fighting doesn’t stop with his death; like Creon in Sophocles’ better-known play Antigone (also staged at 6th @ Penn with Laurence Brown in the cast), Agammemnon and Menelaus continue their bitch fight against him by giving orders that Ajax’s body is not to be buried. Instead it’s to be left outside to rot and serve as food for dogs — a major insult to a person’s memory according to the mores of ancient Greece.

The 6th @ Penn production of Ajax manages to make this 2,500-year-old story live for today’s playgoers. McDonald’s adaptation sometimes gets a little too colloquial — I doubt if anyone in ancient Greece ever said their language’s equivalent of “What goes around comes around” — but for the most part she’s able to cast Sophocles’ text in living English that modern actors can speak easily and modern audiences can absorb. Aided by a quickly moving script that cuts the original’s choruses (in Greek drama a “chorus” meant a single person who served as narrator) and presents Ajax in one continuous 80-minute act, Forrest Aylsworth’s direction makes the play a maelstrom of action, from the roaring scream Ajax emits as he runs down the theatre aisle to enter the action to the confrontations that continue even after Ajax is dead.

The first half of the play is dominated by Laurence Brown’s Ajax. He’s everything we’re told the character is: big, strong, powerful, intensely physical. Brown fearlessly throws his body across the stage, and his booming wounded-animal voice makes both Ajax’s rages and his remorse real. In the second half, Walker as Ajax’s brother Teucer essentially takes over his role, more or less standing in for the dead Ajax as he finds his own strength and literally gets in the faces of the Greek commanders. Trant manages to turn Tecmessa into a figure of real pathos, scared shitless that with Ajax dead she’ll lose whatever status she had as his wife, be thrown back into slavery and given the most humiliating tasks Ajax’s enemies in the Greek army can think of piling on her. Gusik is effective as one of Ajax’s sailors, though it was a mistake to cross-gender cast Donovan as the other sailor and an even bigger mistake to have a woman play Menelaus. It’s one thing, especially in the 21st century, to accept white actor Walker as the brother of African-American Brown; it’s far more jarring to see a woman attempting to impersonate a man, especially an authority figure who started this war because his wife left him for another man.

Amanda Stephens’ physical sets are appropriate, suggesting on a 6th @ Penn budget the battlefields of ancient Troy. Paul Savage’s projections work surprisingly well to suggest the shedding of blood, less so when they attempt the rather coy effect of casting Ajax’s son as a silent silhouette to whom the live actors talk. Jeannie Galioto’s costumes are well done and looked properly lived in,and Elvira Perez’s lighting design is properly moody.

Overall, 6th @ Penn’s Ajax is a fine production, throbbing with action and getting across the parallels between the Trojan quagmire and more recent events without hitting the audience over the head with them. (Menelaus’s line about how rulers must keep their people in fear to control them and maintain order seems especially timely in post-9/11 America.) It’s fast-moving and intense, but also touches the heart in ways that will seem quite surprising for a play that’s fundamentally about men at war — against both an enemy and each other.

Ajax plays at 6th @ Penn Theatre, 3704 Sixth Avenue in Hillcrest, through Sunday, February 5. Performances are at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $23 for all performances ($20 for students and seniors and $15 for members of the Actors’ Alliance). For reservations or information, please call (619) 688-9210 or visit