The Los Angeles premiere of Not Man Apart Physical Theatre Ensemble's Ajax in Iraq, directed and choreographed by John Farmanesh-Bocca, relies on an unusual conceit. Its framework is the classical tale of Ajax, the ancient Greek warrior overlooked by his commander who slaughtered a field of cattle and then turned his blade on himself. The play includes not only Ajax but also a modern-day analogue: A.J., a ferocious female soldier with the post-9/11 American occupation in Iraq who is repeatedly raped by her sergeant. If Ajax represents the first literary case of PTSD, A.J. gets traumatized twice over - first by the war, and then by her own sexual abuse.
The show opens with a routine set to rock music in which the ensemble, clad in military fatigues, hurl themselves through conditioning drills. Later, in the throes of a psychotic break, they pound and punch and slit invisible foes. The effect is electrifying, calling to mind last year's Circle X musical Bad Apples, which used rock rhythms to similar goosebump-raising effect.
These choreographed numbers speak eloquently to the devastating themes, but the overuse of music also undermines the emotional content: In the last 20 minutes, the heavy scoring threatens to drown out the actors. As the play progresses, we hop around in time, from the European cabal that forged modern-day Iraq to ancient Greece, presided over by Athena (Emma Bell). The tales of Ajax (Aaron Hendry) and A.J. (Courtney Munch) progress in parallel, with a canvas tent serving as the perpetual backdrop for pantomined scenes too horrible to see up close. A giant bronzed hand rests onstage, thumb and forefinger gently meeting - in repose, but also prepared to pluck unsuspecting humans and deliver them to terrible fates.
As A.J., Munch makes a fearsome soldier whose competence and dedication go unquestioned. By casting a woman as the famous warrior's equivalent, the play highlights how appalling her circumstances are. Instead of being lauded for her wartime heroics, she's further victimized due to her sex. Munch's performance captures both the character's grit and rage with an un-self-pitying desperation that feels entirely believable. Though the ensemble offers uneven performances, Bell commands as the silky, ruthless goddess, while Chelsea Brynd is especially good as Mangus, a rough-voiced enlistee who becomes A.J.'s reluctant confidante.
Playwright Ellen McLaughlin tries to address the general incomprehensibility of the Iraq War alongside the specific issue of sexual violence in the military. As a result, we don't get enough time or context to adequately explore the latter: The play treats the latter as a one-off violation, less a product of the military's deeply entrenched misogynistic power structure than a secret crime. By alluding to the sergeant's erratic behavior, the play almost suggests that the rapist's behavior is a symptom of his own wartime trauma, which fails to account for the many assaults experienced by women in non-combat zones. But this impassioned staging is worth seeing for the important questions it raises and tries to answer, and how it pries open an issue that has until recently remained firmly closed.
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Not Man Apart Physical Theatre Ensemble at Miles Memorial Playhouse, 1130 Lincoln Blvd., Santa Monica; through June 1. (818) 618-4772, www.notmanapart.com.
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