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Last Nights: Ajax in Iraq at Raisbeck

Last Nights: Ajax in Iraq at Raisbeck

: Poster design by Parker Wrenn (DE '12).

Last Nights: Ajax in Iraq at Raisbeck

: Director Marya Sea Kaminski ponders a moment with the cast. Photo by Mark Bocek.

Last Nights: Ajax in Iraq at Raisbeck

: Xochitl Portillo-Moody (A.J., right) and Shanelle Leonard (Mangus) rehearse a scene as the stage manager looks on. Photo by Mark Bocek.

Last Nights: Ajax in Iraq at Raisbeck

: Dramaturg Alexandra Hamill follows the progress of the rehearsal. Photo by Mark Bocek.

Last Nights: Ajax in Iraq at Raisbeck

: Jessie Moore-Hendrickson (Ajax) and Shawna Petty (Tecmessa) rehearse a scene, books in hand. Photo by Mark Bocek.

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LAST NIGHT! Ellen McLaughlin’s shattering deconstruction of Sophocles’ Ajax plays October 17-22 under the direction of Marya Sea Kaminski.

It is another night of preparation for Ajax in Iraq. The black floor of Cornish’s Raisbeck Hall is lined with tape to indicate the location of entrances and exits, such scenic units as have been constructed are scattered about, the work lights in the theater are harsh and shadow-less. Director Marya Sea Kaminski works quietly and intensely with her actors, jumping up from her table every so often to share their performance space, get a feel for the moment. Often the mood inside a rehearsal hall is loose and the actors talkative and playful. Not tonight. The atmosphere is subdued and focused. Page by page of the script, the cast and the director alternatively run then discuss then run again. It’s mesmerizing. It is a pity most people don’t get to see the work that goes into rehearsing a play, especially a play such as Ajax in Iraq.

The play, by Ellen McLaughlin, is hard-hitting, emotionally demanding. It will ask a lot of the Cornish students in performance, especially the actors playing Ajax and A.J., Jessie Moore-Hendrickson (TH ‘14) and Xochitl Portillo-Moody (TH ‘14). The actors must reveal to audiences two intertwining streams of self-destruction as they create portraits of a soldier of ancient Greece and an American soldier in modern Iraq. Ajax in Iraq is the story of warriors, of valor and shame and, ultimately, terrible waste.

McLaughlin’s Ajax in Iraq is a deconstruction of Sophocles’ Ajax, and as with the best of such efforts, it offers audiences a clear and enjoyable entré into the original work while at the same time relating the plot directly to modern life. Juxtaposing a story centered on the Greek army before Troy with one set during the American presence in Iraq, in McLaughlin’s hands, A.J.’s story line slingshots the story of Ajax, and vice-versa, and back-and-forth.

The Cornish theater and performance production departments describes Ajax in Iraq: “Past and present collide in Ellen McLaughlin’s mash-up of Sophocles’ classic tragedy, Ajax, with the modern-day war in Iraq, while Athena, goddess of war, coolly presides over the whole. Inspired by interviews with war veterans and their families, Ajax in Iraq explores the timeless struggle soldiers face in trying to make sense of war.” The departments go on to warn that the play contains depictions of sexual violence that may not be suitable for all audiences, that parental discretion is advised.

McLaughlin sees the risks and rewards of adapting works such as Ajax as compelling.  “I suppose I’m drawn to the Greeks because I love taking on the big stuff,” the playwright told Adam Szymkowicz in 2011. “ I do find I get bored when nothing is risked. I suppose that kind of theater is just a product of people’s fear of failure, which is virtually inevitable when you try to do anything worth doing. But why not take on the hardest things? There are worse things than failing—usually having to do with making nice, forgettable baubles that will never matter to anyone—what’s the point of that? Why not put it all on the line? All that’s at stake is the size of your soul.”

Of all the dramas of ancient Greece, the works of Sophocles are the most familiar. If one play is chosen for students to read in school, it’s his masterpiece, Oedipus the King (Oedipus Rex). If someone has taken acting in college, the chances are good he or she has played a scene from Antigone. Ajax is usually not on the reading list, which is a shame. It is in many ways Sophocles’ most interesting play, certainly it is his most daring. By way of comparison to plays with which viewers might be more familiar, If Oedipus the King is Sophocles’ Hamlet, Ajax is his Macbeth. In fact, the parallels are eerie — if almost certainly coincidental — between the works of Shakespeare and those of Sophocles. Both Macbeth and Ajax are compelling, highly original, muscular and violent plays considered as flawed, possibly incomplete, by critics. Just as Oedipus and Hamlet concern a murdered father and a fraught relationship with a mother, Ajax and Macbeth are centered on the hoodwinking of a warrior by supernatural forces, with a cold awakening to shame and a resolution by the tainted hero to meet fate head-on.

Marya Sea Kaminski is one of the best known figures on the Seattle theater scene as a performer, director, writer and, as a faculty member at Cornish, an educator. Her awards include “Artist of the Year” by Seattle Magazine, as well as “Best Local Stage Actor” and “Best Performing Artist” by the readers of the Seattle Weekly. And in 2010, she was honored with a Genius Award in Theater from The Stranger and the Seattle Gregory Award for Outstanding Actress. Kaminski has been seen onstage in My Name is Rachel Corrie and The Time of Your Life at Seattle Repertory Theatre, Moonlight and Magnolias at Intiman Theatre, Simone Alone at La Mama ETC in New York City, and in The Cherry Orchard at Annenberg Center in Philadelphia, among numerous other credits. She holds a B.A. in English and theatre arts from the University of Pennsylvania and an M.F.A. in acting from the University of Washington.

For more information: Ajax in Iraq is a presentation of the Cornish College of the Arts theater and performance production departments: October 17, 18, 19, 21 and 22 at 8:00 p.m., one matinee, October 19 at 2:00 p.m. Raisbeck Performance Hall, Cornish 2015 Boren Avenue, Seattle.


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