Christina Shipp and Stephen Conrad Moore as A.J. and Ajax in Iraq

Ellen McLaughlin, author of Ajax in Iraq, turned to the ancient Greeks to make sense out of our soldiers’ experience in Iraq because the Greeks were the first to make sense of the fear, rage, and terror that constitute war by creating a theater for veterans and by veterans. Aeschylus fought in both the battles of Marathon and Salamis (c. 480 BCE). Sophocles was 16 when the Greeks triumphed at Salamis and served as a citizen general in the Athenian army during the Peloponnesian War. These were men who knew the terrors of war first hand, and it is their authority McLaughlin draws on to untangle the Gordian knot of meanings that are present for us, Americans, about our ten-year wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

One death is a tragedy; one million deaths is a statistic. This proverb can be usefully applied to the difference between our modern understanding of war and Aeschylus’ and Sophocles’. Aeschylus and Sophocles were gentlemen soldiers – both are reputed to have come from the Attic nobility where everyone knew everyone else and reputation was everything. McLaughlin, on the other hand, is writing about a modern army made up of mostly working class volunteers who fight and die for infinitely more abstract notions of patriotism and duty. Even our officer corps is historically unique. America was the first modern nation whose leadership did not arise from a noble class, so not even our generals playing cowboy in the desert feel the same sense of hereditary entitlement that Pericles felt. The closest we get is George Bush, who appears closer to Xerxes than Leonidas of Sparta.

The difference is even more important when McLaughlin draws a parallel between Sophocles’ mythical hero Ajax and A.J., a woman soldier serving in Iraq. Though there are many universals that can be traced between the two, such as the desire for honor and the maddening horror of shame, there is also an irreducible difference between what makes a male aristocrat crazy and what makes a woman democrat crazy. For the former honor comes from being the most intimidating presence in battle and council; for the latter honor comes from being the most efficient and well disciplined person in the field. To try and link the two too tightly under the pretence of finding a universal human truth is to do dishonor to their uniqueness.

McLaughlin is sensitive to this problem, and she attempts to solve it using the tools provided by our contemporary, historically minded theater. She engages different registers of our accepted theatrical reality, from realism to expressionism. Her characters are at one moment believable people with back stories and at another mythological types. Athena acts as a chorus (Greek or Shakespearean) to tie the threads together for us. Still, it is an ambitious high wire act that requires much creative energy from the production crew to be realized without feeling incoherent or unwieldy.

Fortunately, the director August Schulenburg and the Flux players have done an admirable job pulling it all together to make an entertaining and coherent whole. Mr. Schulenburg’s work with Flux Theater Ensemble has been consistently outstanding, and I do not exaggerate when I say that Flux’s superior productions have yet to disappoint. This project is perfect for their strengths as an ensemble: the actors are like soldiers who are dedicated to the task at hand rather than stealing the limelight. The talents of Will Lowry, Kia rogers, and Asa Wember (the set designer, lighting designer, and sound designer respectively) have been well orchestrated with the direction of the actors to produce stunning tableaux, haunting images, and a penetrating but never obtrusive soundtrack. This production takes the best of the text to create an engaging and thought provoking theatrical experience.

Ajax in Iraq

June 3 – 25 @ Flamboyan Theater

107 Suffolk St.