POOR AJAX. First Madison Avenue made the Greek hero into a household cleanser; now the American National Theater has turned the tragic warrior into a bloody bore.
For all its conceptual audacity, technical prowess and bravado acting, director Peter Sellars' production of the Sophocles play at the Terrace Theater is academic and all but impenetrable.
Playwright Robert Auletta sets his adaptation in the near future, after an American war in Latin America. The American general Ajax returns a war hero but is betrayed by his peers Odysseus, Agamemnon and Menelaeus. Driven to madness and momentarily deluded into believing the creatures are his rivals, Ajax gorily slaughters a bunch of farm animals.
Auletta and Sellars pick up the story from there and turn it into an inquest at which Ajax rages before a jury (a fatigues-clad, blues-singing Greek chorus) presided over by the goddess Athena, impassive in a silver lame' gown. Ajax decides to kill himself on the beach, and after his suicide his enemies try to deny him a warrior's burial.
Auletta's adaptation, which laments America's involvement in Vietnam and other wars, has moments of fierce poetry, but this willfully eccentric presentation interferes with its audience's ability to feel the tragedy of the hero.
Several actors give strong performances, particularly Howie Seago, of the National Theater of the Deaf, as Ajax. The powerfully built Seago literally dances Ajax's agony in mute but eloquent torment, as members of the chorus take turns speaking his mind.
If the director's stylistic choices look familiar, perhaps it's because he has borrowed techniques from the many troupes he's invited to the Kennedy Center. The influence of the Wooster Group is especially strong in "Ajax," particularly in the sharply raked, multi-level stage and the monotoned, head-lowered murmuring into microphones that presents itself as acting here.
As we've come to expect of a Sellars show, the visual elements of "Ajax" are vivid and often startling. Ajax enters in a man-sized plexiglass aquarium, standing in several inches of dark, bubbling blood, and the scene becomes a literal bloodbath as Ajax reenacts his killing frenzy. As Ajax prepares to die, an angelic messenger with enormous, beautiful white wings sings "Down by the Riverside" as a blood-chilling blues dirge, then crouches, holding up a sword for Ajax to impale himself on.
A video screen snaps on with a vision of crashing surf, the Pentagon's garage doors rise and release a flood of water that washes over the bloodied stage for the remainder of the play. Credit is due set designer George Tsypin who created the Pentagon facade, lighting designer James F. Ingalls, and Bruce Odland, who designed the disorienting sound effects.
Sellars has deleted "The Bob Hope War Zone Special" from the program. The brief-lived burlesque, which was cut because it was not working, was a contemporary "satyr play" based on the Greek theater tradition of following a tragedy with a rowdy comedy.
AJAX -- At the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater through July 5.