Review: The inferno of ancient and modern war

The searing horror of war, both ancient and modern, is felt all too closely in the play "Ajax In Iraq," a production now being staged at Santa Monica's Miles Playhouse by the No Man Apart Physical Theatre Ensemble. Written by Ellen McLaughlin and directed with modernist force by John Farmanesh-Bocca, the play tells two parallel stories; the ancient tale of Ajax, Greek warrior during the Trojan War driven mad by the goddess Athena amid the slaughter and bloodshed as written by Sophocles, and the story of A.J., a female U.S. soldier serving in Iraq amid a group of soldiers unsure of why they're stuck in a distant, dangerous land.

The play touches on the issues of imperialism, nationalism and rape in the army with a powerful eloquence and moments that capture the human scope of war and its profound sadness.

The Miles Playhouse is an excellent venue for this kind of production. The interior is intimate and designed like a classic, almost English hall with lamps designed to evoke ancient candles. Farmanesh-Bocca introduced the play emphasizing that this is the first time it is staged in Los Angeles.

What followed was a potent mixture of philosophy, choreography and drama. The play begins with American soldiers dancing in a tight march with Ajax, played by Aaron Hendry, in the lead, clad in ancient armor and cape, to Awolnation's "Sail."

Emma Bell, blonde like a Valkyrie, appeared as the goddess Athena, piercing the ground with a spear. Her opening monologue is a riveting, disturbing commentary as two actors in silhouette reenact an army rape in a tent. Athena essentially calls on the audience to imagine what is happening inside in all its horror.

This sets the tone for the rest of the play. We meet a group of female soldiers playing cards who engage in sexual banter with male members of their squadron. It seems like typical, lurid conversation, but one female soldier lies in her cot, A.J., played by Courtney Munch. It does not take long for the audience to realize she is being repeatedly raped by her commanding officer.

Athena then introduces us to Ajax, a strong and ferocious warrior who is denied the glory of inheriting the armor of mighty, fallen Achilles during the Trojan War. Athena inflicts Ajax with madness and he goes on a rampage, slaughtering men and sheep to the confused horror of his loyal troops and war bride Tecmessa, played by Alina Bolshakova.

The power of "Ajax In Iraq" is how it connects the broad theme of war through the ages. Like Chris Hedges's book "War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning," McClaughlin's script connects the wars of Greek classics like "The Iliad" with the madness of today's imperialist ventures.

For in the rage of the ancients we find the same, driving violence of today's militarized culture. In one darkly hilarious moment Athena tells the audience, "you really thought the Trojan War was fought over a blonde? She was pretty, but come on, no one is that pretty."

In one memorable section, Laura Covelli steps out, dressed as Gertrude Bell, to explain British colonial plans for the Middle East and how Winston Churchill essentially invented countries like Iraq by redrawing the borders of what used to be the Ottoman Empire.

Meanwhile an American soldier also paces the stage confused about how the Bush administration first invaded Iraq under the pretext of stopping Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction program, only to switch the mission to "exporting democracy" once it turned out there were no such weapons. Here the writing draws a fine thread that connects the histories of Western interventionism in the Arab world.

The set design was impressive in the way it combined the feel of an ancient Greek theater with a modern military base. Boxes of ammo were placed next to classical Athenian columns. The music was a mix of orchestral pieces such as the soundtrack from the movie "There Will Be Blood" and modern songs by Garth Brooks and Dead Pool. This gives the production a unique, timeless quality.

The performances added to the power of the text. Munch played A.J. with a gut-wrenching angst. She is being abused by a superior while surrounded by a conflict that makes little sense.

Hendry's Ajax is a hurricane. He plays the role with intensity but also sadness and despair. Here is a great man ruined by the poisoned chalice of terrible conflict. When he faces his shocked men and realizes what he's been doing the moment is heartbreaking.

The play is a brilliant tragedy for our times. US soldiers are even cast as a Greek chorus, and the themes are broad and universal. It is about the Iraq war, but it is also about emotional scars and trauma, about overcoming humiliation and also about questioning the powerful, especially when the powerful send men and women to die for causes that only benefit the imperial state.

There is a powerful moment where the cast in unison sings "Little Black Submarines" by The Black Keys. They emphasized every word like poetry.

"Ajax In Iraq" is riveting drama but also a reflective commentary on the generations living under the shadow of a post-9/11 world. It is political, but more importantly, very human. The show will be playing at the Miles Playhouse in Santa Monica through June 1.