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Ajax and Philoctetes in San Diego

Spreading the words: Raffo, Strathairn and Eisenberg
Ransom Riggs

On August 13, as part of the U.S. Marine Corps’ annual Combat/Operational Stress Conference, 300 people gathered in a ballroom at the San Diego Hyatt Hotel to hear David Strathairn (Good Night and Good Luck), Jessie Eisenberg (The Squid and the Whale), Iraqi-American actress Heather Raffo and translator-director Bryan Doerries (subbing for Bill Camp) read from Doerries’ translations of Sophocles’ Ajax and Philoctetes, plays that are now nearly 2,500 years old.

But the attendees weren’t the usual kind of theater crowd, those who scale the hills of the Skirball Cultural Center to hear L.A. Theatre Works’ star-studded play readings being recorded for later radio broadcast. These were military personnel and trauma specialists, American soldiers, their spouses and various clinicians trying to figure out new ways to cope with the difficulties of soldiers re-entering civilian society after the horrors of war. It’s part of a growing national preoccupation with the consequences of our war culture, and how ancient theater can help put combat nightmares into perspective, and those who suffer them on a path to healing. You can find the “thousand-yard stare” — the blank facial expression of war veterans that became part of the vocabulary of the post Vietnam War era — in Sophocles. This mantle of “war theater” has been picked up by Anne Bogart’s SITI Theater in New York, by Oskar Eustis’ New York Public Theater and in our backyard by Stephan Wolfert’s Veterans Center for the Performing Arts, Sean Huze’s VetStage and many projects by writer-director John DiFusco.

In San Diego, the actors sat in the front of the hall behind a long white-clothed table, each at a microphone. Whatever fascination the play held came largely through their facial animation and the musicality of their voices. Without the distractions of scenery or costumes, of lighting, dance or sound effects, the event barely registered as a theater “spectacle.” Had there been only one actor instead of four, it would have been storytelling. No matter. The connection between the stories and the audience was visceral, and the standing ovation made that apparent.

Like us, the Greeks had a war culture. They were consumed civically and spiritually by the Trojan War. It was psychiatrist and MacArthur fellow Dr. Jonathan Shay who used theater as a way to reintroduce combat-shattered Vietnam war veterans into society through the plays of Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides and others. Shay’s book, Achilles in Vietnam, is an account of trying to help a group of Vietnam vets rediscover a character and humanity flayed beyond recognition by the trauma of combat and its long stretches of numbing tedium.

The New York–based translator-director Doerries cites Shay as a core influence. Doerries has now received a series of invitations by the military to present readings of scenes from his translations at various events, including a November 19 performance for the Department of Defense in Fairfax, Virginia. Dorries administrates his activities through a center called the Philoctetes Project (www.philoctetesproject.org).

Both Ajax and Philoctetes focus on betrayals within one’s own army. Ajax studies a warrior home from battle who feels humiliated after General Achilles bestows on Ajax’s rival Odysseus the honorary gift of his armor. Having lost his mind from the war, and from a derangement conjured by the goddess Athena, Ajax imagines he is murdering Odysseus (and others), when actually he is in a field slaughtering sheep. When he awakes, fully realizing his folly and shame, his family struggles in vain to prevent his suicide.

Philoctetes concerns a soldier wounded in battle, and a trick Odysseus plays on him during that time — raising painful associations with the VA’s treatment of wounded soldiers.

At a postperformance panel discussion, Marshele Carter Waddell, wife of a Navy Seal combat veteran and author of the book Hope for the Home Front, noted that her husband was in Iraq four times. “The war came home with him all four times, sometimes in his bones and body, but every time in his mind and spirit. It’s been a battle that we’ve been fighting on the home front for five years now.”

Like all of the panelists and many of the audience who were part of a discussion that lasted almost two hours, Waddell was able to quote lines from the plays: “Twice the pain is twice the sorrow. . . . How can you say something that should never be spoken. Our home is a slaughterhouse.”

As Doerries pointed out, the theater has a way of initiating conversations and exposing torments that otherwise might never be revealed.

 

"It fascinates me, the loops of how war screws people up, and how, through history, those loops always circle back to ‘The V.A. is broken,’ ” says Stephan Wolfert, a 41-year-old U.S. Army vet who has served for 10 years in places as varied as Panama and Mogadishu. Wolfert’s two-year-old local theater company, the Veterans Center for the Performing Arts (VCPA) , has started a process that Doerreis says he’d like to integrate into his own work — bringing war veterans and nonveterans together as actors.

“I meet with vets monthly,” Wolfert says, explaining his process. Then I bring in dramaturges and other professional theater people, regardless of their military experience — then the civilian actors exchange with the vets, and it pushes both of their art a bit.”

A graduate of Rhode Island College, Wolfert worked with the now-legendary avant-garde director Richard Schechner in New York, as well as choreographer Twyla Tharpe. (Wolfert choreographed the military dance sequences in Tharpe’s musical, Movin’ Out.)

Wolfert has been in L.A. since 2003, starting his work here with Randy Reinholz, a Choctaw Indian who, with his wife Jean, runs the Native Voices theater series at the Autry Museum. VCPA performances have included Man of La Mancha and a riveting production of a play by Australian playwright David Williamson, Sanctuary — a melodrama about a young biographer who terrorizes a senior journalist, whom, the biographer claims, sold out to American war interests. Currently the company is running a Shakespeare-in-the-park repertory (co-produced by the Los Angeles Area Veteran Arts Alliance) of Coriolanus and Twelfth Nightat the Bandshell in West L.A. Wolfert’s also developing a piece about the “27 percent of all female soldiers who have been raped, mostly by their commanders.”

The challenge, he says, is to theatricalize such horrors, “but not have it remain in the realm of victim art.”

As Afghanistan and Pakistan continue to unravel, Wolfert fears that his particular use of theater may become a cottage industry.

Coriolanus and Twelfth Night perform in repertory through September 6 at the Bandshell, West L.A. Civic Center, 11388 Santa Monica Blvd. No charge and free parking. Call (310) 559-2116.

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