note: entire contents copyright 2011 by Sheila Barth
Sometimes, change and innovation are good, but at the world premiere of American Repertory Theater’s (ART) production of Sophocles’ war tragedy, “Ajax,” (translated by Charles Connaghan), the play’s clout is undermined by Director Sarah Benson’s zealous overuse of multi-media gimmickry.
“Ajax,” the story of the Trojan War hero, who is a tower of strength and courage, but comes unglued with battle fatigue, is overshadowed on stage by modern technological wizardry, sight and sound effects that drown out, not enhance, the classic tale’s potent impact.
Benson’s intent is laudable, given today’s constant barrage of news about soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome, or going wild in battle. Ajax is unaware that goddess Athena tricked him into believing he committed shameful, heinous acts, when he actually killed the army’s cattle and sheep, not soldiers and generals. The next morning, he is filled with deep remorse and commits suicide, leaving his family and followers with the task of trying to secure an honorable burial for him.
Brent Harris as mentally tormented Ajax is drenched in blood and gore, screaming about the carnage he committed. He is angry that as mighty Achilles lay dying, his sword was given to his competitor, Odysseus, not him.
In front of a background smeared with broad bloody slashes, and the eviscerated, suspended carcass of a bull, Ajax struts and frets upon the stage, raging at times and burdened with remorse.
This story doesn’t need Greg Emetaz’s eye-popping, slanted, floor-to-ceiling video screens depicting a Greek chorus of 35 individuals, who give their opinion during key points throughout the play. Like any man-on-the-street canvasses, many comments add little or nothing to move the plot or intensify the one-act, 90-minute production. Other times, these interviews meld into a cacophonous babble.
However, Benson says, “The central function of the chorus is a representation of community and a reflection of the audience.” The ART chorus is composed of a cross section of local educators, veterans, politicians, military members, family members, workers, business owners and more.
Unfortunately, too, this talented cast is overshadowed by all this hoopla. In the opening scene, Kaaron Briscoe as goddess Athena is dressed in high heels and a business suit (thanks to set/costume designer David Zinn). As she climbs down from the top of a Coca Cola vending machine located in a military barracks, her voice booms and echoes, separating her from mere mortals. Soldiers are dressed in camouflage fatigues; Ajax’s young son in pajamas; his wife, in jeans.
ART favorites Remo Airaldi as Chorus Leader and Thomas Derrah as Agamemnon, Brent Harris as Ajax, Kaaron Briscoe as Athena, Ron Cephas Jones as Odysseus, add fire to Connaghan’s dialogue. And Linda Powell, daughter of former Secretary of State Colin Powell, delivers a commanding performance as Ajax’s faithful and frightened wife, Tecmessa.
On Feb. 28, American Repertory Theater’s associate partner, Theater of War, presents excerpted readings of “Ajax” and “Philoctetes,” and on March 7 of “Ajax” only. The readings are free and open to the public.
BOX INFO: World premiere of one-act, 90-minute translation of Sophocles’ “Ajax,” by Charles Connaghan, appearing at the American Repertory Theater (ART), Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle St., Harvard Square, Cambridge, through March 13. Performances are Tuesday-Sunday, at 7:30 p.m.; matinees, Saturday, Sunday, at 2 p.m.; Sunday, March 13, 2 p.m. only. Recommended for mature 12-year-olds and above. Tickets start at $25; student rush, $15; seniors, $10 off; group rates also. Call 617-547-8300, visit www.AmericanRepertoryTheater.org or the Box Office.