It’s a truism of theater that the Greeks get revived during wartime. Those stark, sometimes histrionic plays that torment freshmen in peacetime Western Civ classes begin to feel painfully urgent when we watch the world around us devolve into a violent comic strip of good guys and bad guys. For contemporary directors looking for a vessel through which to express their outrage at current events, it’s easy to see the draw of plays so purely about issues of authority and dissent, honor and shame. But the pitfall in this kind of revival is that it can set up a simplistic equation between the ancient and the contemporary (“the more things change, the more they stay the same…”), a construction that drains the specificity out of both the original play and the current events the director seeks to comment on. This can make a revival that’s straining to be topical into little more than an acting exercise. How to avoid this problem and still give the Greeks the turn on stage they seem to demand?
Enter LightBox, a five-year-old experimental theater company led by artistic director Ellen Beckerman, a collaborative group that draws on extensive training in Butoh, Suzuki, Commedia dell’Arte and other rigorous disciplines to create fresh adaptations of classic works. LightBox recently took on Sophocles’ 2400-year-old warhorse Ajax, sending a thousand volts of electricity through it and transforming it into Ajax: 100% Fun at the Culture Project. The LightBox practice, applied to great effect in their previous adaptations of Hamlet, The Seagull, And Mother Courage And Her Children, among others, is to interweave a wide range of contemporary texts into a classic script, updating its rhetorical register without tampering with the sweep and majesty of the original. It’s a formula that’s been applied before, perhaps most notably by LightBox advisory board member and aesthetic guiding light Charles L. Mee, but Beckerman and her company make the collage approach their own, creating a hybrid performance style that crackles with specificity and immediacy.
The story of a mighty warrior who cracks under the strain of war and turns first on his commanders, then on himself, Sophocles’ Ajax is a notoriously unwieldy piece. “This play is a bitch,” Beckerman says bluntly. “It’s not your typical classic play that will carry you through and teach you what it wants done with it. There’s a reason people don’t do this play.” For one thing, the hero kills himself halfway through the play, transforming suddenly from the driving force behind the action to a corpse that people stand around and argue about. The text itself is stylistically challenging, too, a weird, sometimes clunky synthesis of the carnal and the cerebral; as blood-soaked as the story is, Sophocles frequently has his characters indulge in lengthy, not entirely dramatic exegeses on the nature of big-time Greek concepts like honor, valor, and heroism.
But for LightBox, the play became largely about the contingency of social roles, particularly the twin notions of ally and enemy, and they used the incorporation of contemporary texts to tease out and animate that theme. Beckerman and her company members pored over dozens of texts of every genre—from press releases from the Saudi prison system to Anthony Swofford’s Jarhead to Kurt Cobain’s suicide note—to find the material that would ultimately slip into and in between the Sophocles scenes. The entire evening is framed by jarring exchanges between prisoners and their interrogators drawn from transcripts of actual interrogations at Guantanamo Bay in 2002-2003, and the piece is peppered with “haikus” uttered by the epigrammatic Donald Rumsfeld during press conferences.
Pastiche can sometimes read as muddle, but LightBox’s relentless focus on physical precision makes that impossible. The company spends a substantial portion of every rehearsal process building trust as an ensemble, along with a shared physical vocabulary, so that by the time the actors reach the stage each gesture is carved out of the space around it with razor-thin precision, each individual scene or set piece reads as distinctly as a picture cut from a magazine with nail scissors. Transitions are as sharp as jump cuts, and the relationships between the characters zing through the playing space like bolts of electricity. From the first moment of the evening, when Shawn Fagan, the actor who plays Ajax, comes down right into a wash of light to tell us a story from his own childhood about catching an uncatchable fish in the presence of his fisherman father, the play is a symphony of energy restrained and unleashed. As he unspools this quiet, affecting narrative about accomplishment and fatherly pride, Fagan expertly but casually—almost without looking down—guts and cleans a dead fish, sawing with some force through the scales and bones and chucking its innards with wet splats into a metal bucket. It’s an apt metaphor for LightBox’s overall project: animating the classical with the contemporary, the philosophical with the rawly physical.
Ajax: 100% Fun runs at at the Culture Project, 45 Bleecker, through March 5, Wed-Sat at 8 PM, Sunday at 3 PM. Tickets $18 at SmartTix.com or 212 868 4444. Visit Lightboxtheatre.org for more info.
MADELEINE GEORGE is the 10th of the 13 playwrights who make up 13P (Thirteen Playwrights, Inc.).