Sophocles and post-traumatic stress disorder commingle in “Ajax in Iraq” at the Miles Memorial Playhouse, to dazzling, disturbing effect.
In its riveting Los Angeles premiere, playwright Ellen McLaughlin’s potent assault on sexual abuse in the military by way of the titular legendary Greek warrior scores a dead-on triumph – raw, provocative, poetic and indelible.
We enter a venue transformed into a kind of martial gymnasium of the antiquities. Traditionally garbed Ajax (Aaron Hendry, committed and commanding as ever) appears, to punctuate and eventually lead the seamless drill maneuvers of a present-day platoon in fatigues.
This prologue, its expressive physical dexterity easily worth admission, foreshadows the superbly realized merger of content and form ahead. Once the deliberately anachronistic Athena (a wonderfully understated Emma Bell) addresses the ominous shadow play occurring in the upstage tent – “You don’t want to go in there. Terrible things happen there” – our senses are alerted.
With the advent of A.J. (Courtney Munch, nuanced and affecting), the 21st-century counterpart to Ajax, all bets are off, leading to a shattering climax and haunting final image.
Director-choreographer John Farmanesh-Bocca rallies his stalwart Not Man Apart Physical Theatre Ensemble forces into breathtaking kinetic cohesion. The sparely resourceful design scheme -- Jessica Kohn’s spatially charged lighting and Hendry's fight choreography particularly invaluable -- and an utterly fearless ensemble from Bell, Hendry and Munch to Chelsea Brynd's empathetic Mangus, Alina Bolshakova's rending Tecmessa, Eric Naficy Dyhrsen's sensitive Odysseus, and on through the roster conjoin to illuminate the text and land its vital topical discourse into our brainpans.
Perhaps not since the emerging Theatre Movement Bazaar has a physical theater troupe demonstrated such purposeful integrity, nor since Sean Huze’s “The Sand Storm” and Shem Bitterman’s Iraq trilogy a script provided so theatrically authentic an examination of the inexplicable lunacy of war. Indeed, it would be madness to miss it.
“Ajax in Iraq,” Miles Memorial Playhouse, 1130 Lincoln Blvd., Santa Monica. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays. Ends June 1. $25. (818) 618-4772 or NotManApart.com. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.