Sometimes an onstage image is so powerfully moving, it overwhelms whatever comes before and after it. That was the case with the watermelon copulation scene in "Neighbors," Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' stink-bomb collection of racial stereotypes that played at Mixed Blood Theatre earlier this fall. And that is the case with a rape scene in "Ajax in Iraq," Ellen McLaughlin's gut-punching drama that opened over the weekend in a Frank Theatre production at the Playwrights' Center.
The scene in question involves a sergeant (Logan Verdoorn, in a tightly-wound performance) and A.J. (Katie Guentzel), a female grunt under his command. Director Wendy Knox has staged the encounter far downstage; we cannot miss Guentzel's twitching face as she tries to maintain her composure during one of the most disturbing violations imaginable. Watching her reaction during the act is akin to witnessing, up close, the distorting G-forces exerted on a pilot. Then something gives way, the scene ends, and we are left with a brutally disturbing picture that will haunt our nightmares.
That director Knox's staging of MacLaughlin's poetic mashup of mythical Greece and contemporary Iraq is a mixed bag is almost beside the point. That the acting company has a few strong performers? Eh. That there is a nice symmetry of the chorus of soldiers switching between ancient times and today is nice.
That indelible scene, in which the word "dismissed" flies like a dagger, makes this gritty, unsparingly directed show, well worth seeing
McLaughlin tapped Sophocles' "Ajax" to tell a story of betrayal and horror. In the ancient Greek drama, mythical warrior Ajax, after being wronged, goes berserk and eventually kills himself. After she is wronged by her commander, A.J. similarly loses her bearings.
The blood-soaked action plays out on Joseph Stanley's make-shift military camp, with large, sand-colored maps that show Iraq, Iran and other spots in the region.
Guentzel gives A.J. a beatific stoicism in this drama. There is strength even in her silence, filled with conflicts between duty and self-preservation. Verdoorn's sergeant is someone who has grown accustomed to misusing his power. He comes across as amoral instead of immoral. And Rich Remedios' bloodied Ajax is a sight of horror.
The production is lorded over by goddess Athena (Taous Khazem). The company also includes Leif Jurgensen as a captain and a minister, and Joy Dolo as A.J.'s soldier friend. There is one major choice that does not work: Verdoorn's sergeant is so reprehensibly distinct, it makes no sense that the actor should also play a member of the chorus.
No matter, this "Ajax in Iraq" is bluntly affecting.