Two Tragic Worlds of Soldiers:
Not Man Apart Physical Theatre Ensemble’s Ajax in Iraq

Ellen McLaughlin's Ajax in Iraq
Produced by Jason Bruffy, in association with the Greenway Arts Alliance
Directed and choreographed by John Farmanesh-Bocca
July and August 2016
Not Man Apart Physical Theatre Ensemble
Greenway Court Theatre, Los Angeles

Reviewed by Yuko Kurahashi
Kent State University

Joanna Rose Bateman as Athena
(photo: Sean Deckert)

Aaron Hendry as Ajax
(photo: Sean Deckert)

Founded in 2004 in San Francisco, Not Man Apart Physical Theatre Ensemble has staged adaptations of Ancient Greek and Roman plays as well as Shakespeare, including Pericles Redux, Titus Redux, Hercules Furens, and Lysistrata Unbound. Bringing dance and theatre together, the ensemble has created innovative theatrical events and is one of the leading physical theatre companies in the United States. 

For their production of Ajax in Iraq, produced in 2014, McLaughlin and Farmanesh-Bocca collaboratively tailored the script for the NMA’s movement-focused presentation. . The 2016 production of Ajax in Iraq was the result of additional revisions done by McLaughlin and NMA to further highlight unique features of the company.

Ajax in War juxtaposes the legendary Greek hero from Sophocles’s Ajax with a contemporary story about the war in Iraq and the sexual battery of women soldiers fighting there. Ajax (Aaron Hendry) is a Greek warrior who succumbs to his hubris after losing the contest for the armor of the fallen hero Achilles to Odysseus. McLaughlin invents the character of AJ (Courtney Munch) as the counterpart to Ajax. Like her ancient Greek counterpart, AJ is a soldier known for her acts of valor.

McLaughlin’s dramaturgy merges these two worlds, universalizing the trauma and tragedy of war by treating Ajax’s breakdown as an example of PTSD.  In the contemporary story, both AJ (Courtney Much) and Ajax (Aaron Hendry) perform together on the stage in choreographed movement sequences. AJ’s breakdown is a response to sexual battery by her superior officer (James Bane). The use of sexual assault in the play reflects increasing concerns about the incidence of sexual harassment and assault in the US military, while PTSD illustrates the condition of soldiers. The interplay between sexual harassment and sexual assault is complex because in the military, “the level of coercion that can be facilitated through the use of rank and authority can be just as serious as the threat or use of physical force.”1  The routine of AJ’s superior’s verbal threats escalates into physical assaults. AJ’s trauma exemplifies the seriousness of sexual victimization in the military, which still needs to be addressed.

Through the figures of Ajax, AJ, and their fellow soldiers, McLaughlin asks the fundamental question of why we fight. The public would say we fight for freedom and democracy, but in reality soldiers fight for daily survival and, most importantly, from ancient times to the present, for the other soldiers on either side.

Joanna Rose Bateman, who plays the Greek Goddess Athena, serves as narrator of the play. Her sardonic delivery adds an edge, provoking the audience. Hendry’s Ajax, with exaggerated makeup and a macho strut, portrays a war hero possessed by demons. Munch's AJ is a strong but vulnerable loner. She expresses her psychological state through dance, movement, and facial expressions. The well-trained ensemble plays multiple roles. The well-trained ensemble plays multiple roles. Their synchronized movement/dance, choreographed by Farmanesh-Bocca and Jones Welsh, to the upbeat music in the first scene, designed by Farmanesh-Bocca and Adam Phalen, sets the tone.

The stage is simple but metaphorical with a red backdrop, abstract sculptures, helmets, and a gigantic right hand pointing at a floor map of the Middle East painted by Courtney Jordan Bindel. Army trunks and cots are used to supplement the stage. Lighting designer Joey Guthman changes tones and intensity of lighting throughout the performance, creating different ambiences for the ancient and contemporary worlds. The ensemble, as soldiers, wears camouflage pants and t-shirts with knee pads. When they become a Greek chorus, they simply wear white masks. Ajax wears a black crossed-leather belt, modified “foustanella” (a skirt-like garment), and greaves. Bateman’s Athena is dressed in a stark-white tunic with a bright-red shawl over it. These archetypical costumes and accessories, designed by Stephanie Dunbar (Catherine Baumgardner, wardrobe designer), serve as a visual reminder of the symbioses between Greek tragedies and contemporary war.

McLaughlin has adapted other Greek tragedies, including The Persians (National Actors’ Theatre, New York), Helen (Public Theater, New York), and Iphigenia and Other Daughters (Classic Stage, New York).  McLaughlin states that when she went into the collaboration process with the class of 2009 at the Art/MXAT Institute for Advanced Theater Training, she did not intend to write another Greek adaptation: “All I knew was that I wanted to write about the Iraq War, which I felt compelled to address as we entered its bloodiest year and there seemed no end in sight.”2  During the creative process, McLaughlin strongly felt that her generation was “essentially sending their generation to fight its battle.”3

The 2009 collaborative processes were imbued with the younger generation’s efforts to know more about war and its effects on people in the past and present. The graduate students conducted research on the mythology and history of war through books, articles, and YouTube videos. Some interviewed their grandparents and relatives, and some talked to homeless Vietnam veterans and returning soldiers. In order to find a strong structure for these diverse devising-theatre materials, McLaughlin turned to the Greeks.

The NMA’s interpretation and staging of McLaughlin’s Ajax in War is an invaluable vehicle for raising awareness of the tragedies in war in the year 2016, 13 years after the US invasion of Iraq.


1 Valerie A. Sander and Cynthia J. Thomsen, “Sexual Harassment and Assault in the U. S Military: A Review of Policy and Research Trends,” Military Medicine 181 (2016): 21.

2 Ellen McLaughlin, “On Finding Ajax in Iraq,” PMLA 129. 4 (2014), 835.

3 Ibid.


A PDF of this piece: Volume 13, Number 12