Ajax in Iraq Review: Clifford Lee Johnson III, Backstage

(Photo: Isaiah Tanenbaum. Pictured: Mike Mihm)

Back in the day, Backstage was our first major reviewer, positively reviewing both Life is a Dream and A Midsummer Night’s Dream when not many other critics were coming our way. Then, there was a long, dry, spell after the Angel Eaters Trilogy, and though they interviewed us for Jacob’s House, we haven’t been reviewed by them since 2008.

Happily, that spell is over, broken by a well-written review from Clifford Lee Johnson III. Like Jon Sobel, he finds that the dual stories and diversity of voices get in each others way, derailing the play’s momentum. Additionally, he finds the play’s earnestness to be problematic, a refrain noted by OffOffOnline (I’ll be posting that tomorrow). Finally, he feels the play hits the “war is very bad” note too simplistically. All of these worthwhile thoughts deserve some consideration.

I can definitely see how for some, the ceaseless curiosity of the play’s interrogation of the war, moving as it does across time, space and character with passing regard for traditional narrative, might feel like momentum wasted rather than conceptual territory gained.

However, much of the dual stories overlap each other, quite literally. The tension of A.J.s blood-discovery scene is enhanced by sharing the stage with Ajax’s self-same scene. The play is a collision of two stories, until, in their final moments, they move effortlessly, almost as one. My guess is that the two stories don’t actually get in each others way; but rather, that feeling of obstruction comes from the detours the plot makes elsewhere. What do you think?

I’m also less certain about the play’s earnestness. The nature of direct address can create the illusion of honesty between character and audience, but that is dependent upon the reliability of the character. Athena is not exactly a trustworthy guiding deity for a play; indeed, she promises at the beginning she won’t make us go into the tent, and then brings the horrors of that tent into our laps. Because she presides over the play, the devil is given its due, and as much time is spent with the horrors of war, an equal amount of time is spent dealing with the pleasures of cruelty.

This is one of the fascinating things about the responses to the play thus far: the gleeful pleasure of Ajax in his madness, the beauty of the Kali invocation, the power of the Haka dance, the seduction of the mud creatures dream, and the uneasy nightmare sequences of the red torture tent (the voices in the dark) and the NVG goggles scene; all of these moments in the play where the power of letting cruelty into your mind and the pleasure of inflicting harm on others; somehow, those scenes may be landing less forcefully than the scenes where the consequences of cruelty are dealt with. This may simply be a product of where these scenes fall in the narrative sequence, or it may mean I did not stage them clearly or forcefully enough (though they are some of the scenes I’m proudest of).

Suffice to say, I think calling this play earnest misses its deeper ironies. War is more than just very bad in Ajax in Iraq; it is also deeply, troublingly human, and like all of our darker human impulses, there is a profound pleasure in giving into it.

Finally, while the play does clearly feel that “war is very bad”, there is nothing simple about that feeling. The horrors of war are multi-faceted and complex, and the play does not short change them. For example, war may be bad, but many soldiers miss the sense of purpose and belonging when they return home, and so come back for multiple tours. That is not a simple thing, and it’s just one of the many Gordian knots the play wrestles with about the soldier’s experience. Cumulatively, the sense of the play is that “war is very bad”, but it is in the precise details of what exactly makes it so that gives Ajax in Iraq it’s power.

Or at least, that’s what I think. It may be that the onslaught of ideas and images in the play, when viewed at a single sitting, resolve from complexity and irony into the more straightforward experience Johnson describes. What was your experience of the dual stories, complexity, moral ambiguity and ironies of the play? Paella or broth?

There also some lovely positive quotes about the play, and I share this:

Lori E. Parquet brings fire and fear to Tecmessa, Ajax’s war bride, making her an individual we understand despite the vast span of time and culture between us. Tiffany Clementi’s brief scene as an agonized wife who no longer understands or loves her traumatized husband eloquently brings home the cost of war to the families of veterans. And Mike Mihm humanizes his Odysseus, allowing him to be as appalled by Athena’s actions as we are.

Here, here. There’s also a must-read quote about Will Lowry’s work as set designer, but I’ll leave that for you to find. And I very much hope that this means that the goodly reviewers of Backstage have returned to Flux to stay.

So, read the whole thing, then get your tickets here, and then leave your own thoughts on the play here.

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