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Theater Review

ART’s ‘Ajax’ runs afoul of its gimmicks

Brent Harris plays the title role in the American Repertory Theater’s production of “Ajax,’’ which uses a Greek chorus of Boston-area residents on video screens. Brent Harris plays the title role in the American Repertory Theater’s production of “Ajax,’’ which uses a Greek chorus of Boston-area residents on video screens. (Michael Lutch)
By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / February 18, 2011

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CAMBRIDGE — Shame and humiliation, Sophocles knew, are foes that even the bravest and most relentless warrior cannot defeat.

When the title character of “Ajax’’ is passed over for a prized military honor, his wounded pride leads him to a bloody rampage that eventually ends in his own death. His fury, born of his overpowering sense of shame (“I’m dishonored, lost,’’ he says), is his undoing.

A new production of “Ajax,’’ now at the American Repertory Theater and set in a present-day military facility, is nearly undone by director Sarah Benson’s ill-advised decision to rely on a distracting video gimmick and by Charles Connaghan’s infelicitous translation of “Ajax,’’ which makes the play feel stranded in a no-man’s land: not quite Sophocles, not quite modern.

It’s a pity, because Benson was right to believe that “Ajax,’’ originally written in the fifth century BC, could have resonance in an era when so many soldiers are returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress syndrome.

The director chose wisely in casting Brent Harris in the title role. Harris, who played Scar in the national tour of “The Lion King,’’ is consistently compelling as Ajax wanders through the tragedy in a state somewhere between a trance and a frenzy, his T-shirt and pants soaked in blood. Alas, after Ajax falls on his sword, Harris spends the second half of the play sprawled immobile on the stage, and the production never quite compensates for his missing energy.

But “Ajax’’ does feature a few solid supporting performances, including fine turns by the ever-reliable Thomas Derrah as Agamemnon, Remo Airaldi as the Chorus Leader, and Linda Powell, daughter of former secretary of state Colin Powell, as Ajax’s desperate wife, Tecmessa.

She has reason for desperation, because as the play begins her husband has gone berserk. A Greek soldier renowned for his valor, Ajax was denied a coveted award that was given instead to Odysseus (Ron Cephas Jones).

Enraged, Ajax had set out with his sword, intent on killing Agamemnon, Menelaus (James Joseph O’Neil), and other military leaders who he believed had wronged him.

But Ajax was prevented by the goddess Athena (Kaaron Briscoe), who visited madness upon him. In a “diseased mania,’’ Ajax savagely slaughtered cattle and sheep in the belief they were the Greek leaders and brought the surviving animals back to be tortured. Set designer David Zinn summons the full weight of the horror with the harrowing figure of an upside-down, eviscerated bull.

Less successful by far is Benson’s decision to construct a Greek chorus of Boston-area residents whose musings and commentary, as projected on 30 video screens, frequently interrupt the flow of “Ajax’’ and generally prove less than illuminating.

The dialogue is too often flat, stilted, and lacking in verve, especially when compared to other translations of “Ajax.’’ Compare, for example, a passage in which Ajax is offered some words of wisdom about the vagaries of human nature.

In Lewis Campbell’s 19th-century verse translation, it reads: “Ever toward the great and high/ Creepeth climbing jealousy/ Yet the low without the tall/ Make at need a tottering wall/ Let the strong the feeble save/ And the mean support the brave/ Ah! ’twere vain to tune such song/ ’Mid the nought discerning throng.’’

In Connaghan’s translation, that admonition reads thus: “Envy falls on the man with power and wealth. Without the great, the weak teeter and fall. The small are best supported by the great; and the great, in turn, by the small. But it’s impossible to teach people this.’’

It made me wonder what might have been if Benson had staged “Ajax’’ in the same gritty setting but with loftier language, as Rupert Goold did so brilliantly with his recent production of “Macbeth,’’ starring Patrick Stewart and set amid the wartime carnage of the mid-20th century. Or conversely, if, say, Neil LaBute or Craig Wright or David Mamet had simply taken the plot of “Ajax’’ and let fly. As it is, we’re left with a kind of half-hearted vernacular that is a pale simulacrum of Sophocles’ majestic tragedy. And that’s a shame.

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.

AJAX

Play by: Sophocles. Translated by Charles Connaghan.

Directed by Sarah Benson

Sets and costumes, David Zinn. Lights, Justin Townsend. Sound, Matt Tierney. Video, Greg Emetaz.

At: American Repertory Theater, Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge. Through March 13. Tickets 617-547-8300, americanrepertorytheater.org