Here’s what The People think, how our culture weighs in. That, we’re told, was the message the chorus delivered in Greek tragedies, as they sang or chanted their reactions to the revelation and the handling of atrocities. What would this look like in a society as heterogonous, and as destabilized by radical societal changes, as ours is today? Sarah Benson investigates in her innovative and often deeply moving take on “Ajax,” by Sophocles, in a brand new translation by Charles Connaghan.
A grid of 30 monitors, hung askance over an eerie modern military mess hall (designed by David Zinn), reveals the “talking heads” that makeup Benson’s chorus. They belong to a cross-section of community members from the Cambridge area, including, a director’s note tells us, “both military and civilian members, active service-people, veterans, young and old, students, doctors, elected officials, the unemployed, educators, mothers, grandfathers, those working in industry, the arts, media, technology and business worlds, and many more.”
These community members, who sometimes stare silently at the audience for long stretches in Warhol-like footage, have been interviewed about themes and plot elements in “Ajax,” and asked to relate to parts of the story. Pieces of these interviews are offered as reactions to the twists and turns of the drama. They feel personal and heartfelt, real people sharing their feelings. Each face and voice is distinct and anytime the chorus speaks in unison, it produces a pointed cacophony. The result sometimes feels like documentary, sometimes like news footage, sometimes even like reality TV.
The authenticity of these voices heightens the challenge for the play’s actors whose dialogue remains slightly stilted. When dueling heroes Odysseus (Ron Cephas Jones) and Ajax (Brent Harris) speak with the self-conscious bombast of the traditional tragedian, their elocution feels out of step with the elements that work so well in this production—but then, they are meant to be outsized personalities, cultural icons in their own time.
The story, best know from Homer’s “Iliad,” is that Odysseus and Ajax, two of the most formidable warriors on the Greek side of the Trojan War, rescued the body of Achilles, the mightiest of the Greeks, from desecration by his enemies once he fell. Ajax, known for his brawn, carried the body to safety with Odysseus, known for his strategy and craft, guarding his back. In the war’s aftermath, a contest was held to determine which hero would get the honor of owning Achilles’ armor. It went to Odysseys for, Ajax thinks, political reasons. Bitter in defeat after so many hard fought victories, Ajax turns on his old comrade in arms, naming Odysseus and his supporters as sworn enemies.
When Sophocles picks up the story, Ajax’s bitterness has turned into the kind of blinding, violent rage that once made him such a danger to the Trojans. In modern parlance, he decides to “frag” his own men—literally tear them to pieces. Athena (Kaaron Briscoe) the patron goddess of strategists, protects Odysseus, her mortal champion, by leading Ajax to slaughter cattle he only believes are Greeks. By the time Ajax realizes the truth the damage is done. He will now be seen by those who once revered him as a madman and a traitor.
In other words, Ajax, trained to be a fearless killer, cannot find his place in the world once his war is over. Extreme emotions trigger a break from reality in which he believes himself to be back in battle. Parallels to the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from which so many of the veterans of our most recent (and ongoing) wars suffer, are all too clear. But “Ajax” touches on more than the ravages of war. It’s about how we reckon with any of our biggest public heroes when their heightened realities catch up with them and they lose their way.
Benson’s production really heats up in about its second half (not bad when you consider that it’s less than 90 minutes long), with the entrance of Teucer (Nathan Darrow), Ajax’s brother, and Agamemnon (Thomas Derrah), his commanding officer, who fiercely debate the way Ajax will be treated by the military now that he has fallen. Ultimately, the arbiter of the quarrel must be the hunted man himself: Odysseus.
There are many reasons to see this affecting and fascinating take on a Greek stage classic; in this rare case, the most compelling reason, is the chorus.
“Ajax” plays at the A.R.T.’s Loeb Drama Center through March 13.