Friday, February 18, 2011

Ajax goes AWOL

Brent Harris and Mesafint Goldfeld in Ajax.
The news isn't good from the A.R.T.'s production of Sophocles's Ajax (now through March 13), but at least the news isn't irritating. The production doesn't work, but it also doesn't feel like a fraud the way The Blue Flower and most of Diane Paulus's work has. Ajax feels basically like an old A.R.T. show - indeed, Robert Brustein and Jeremy Geidt are even in it, as part of a video chorus - but, like the vast majority of old A.R.T. shows, it's kind of a pseudo-intellectual bore.  But this time the boredom feels somehow comforting; it's almost like a nostalgia trip.

It's true that director Sarah Benson (of Soho Rep fame) has some interesting ideas about the play - or at least they're interesting on paper; they don't gel on stage, for complex reasons.  Not all the performances are strong (although a few are), and Ms. Benson strikes such a distant stance toward the material that the modern resonances she seems to be looking for (she has updated the action to Afghanistan or Iraq) never actually come clear.  Is Athena supposed to be Condi Rice?  Is that Obama as Odysseus? We wonder such things vaguely at times, but mostly we're thinking, Do I care?

And mostly no, you do not care - although sometimes you do.   Brent Harris looks and sounds great as the gonzo Ajax, for instance (above), and brings a welcome jolt of whiteboy-freakout to every scene he's in.  Still, he doesn't convey Ajax's actual arc - because he, and the production, seem to want to half-pretend Ajax is falling apart because of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  Unfortunately, that's not what Sophocles is saying; Sophocles is saying that Ajax is a professional killer who has finally gone off his leash ( he attempts to murder Odysseus and the other generals, but due to a delusion brought on by Athena, only succeeds in torturing some livestock).

What society owes such a killer for services rendered is the fundamental question of the play.  And when Benson and Co. finally get around to it, the production finds something like its footing, thanks to a passionate turn by Nathan Darrow as Teucer, the sole defender of the once-glorious, but now suicidal Ajax, and some solid work from James Joseph O'Neil as Menelaus and (believe it or not) Thomas Derrah as Agamemnon.  But up till then the production is consistently undermined by weaker work from Linda Powell (daughter of Colin Powell) as Ajax's captive consort, Tecmessa, and Ron Cephas Jones as a strangely blank Odysseus.

Ajax and his chorus line.
We can sense some of these acting problems are due to a certain absence on the part of the director - she's clearly not quite sure what to make of the matter-of-fact machismo of the play.  But alas, some of the show's conceptual problems are due to her presence.  Benson has decided to place the Chorus of the tragedy up on video screens (kind of like the title sequence for The Brady Bunch) with almost all the lines Sophocles wrote for them given over to Remo Airaldi (who's physically onstage, above).  With most of its actual dialogue missing, the Chorus instead mostly ad-libs lines like, "Whoa, too bad about Ajax going postal, dude."  The results are both banal and weirdly disconnected from the action (perhaps that's the point, but it doesn't work dramatically).  And it's amusing to ponder the number of well-known Harvard profs and hangers-on chosen for this "Chorus" - I guess this is the A.R.T.'s idea of "the common people."  Like the rest of the production, it feels out of touch with reality.

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