My Theatre

25 August 2012

To Stage or Not To Stage: Ajax (por nobody)

By // Theatre (Toronto)

I left Ajax – the play at Summerworks, not the place – hardly able to speak, let alone know what to think or feel.  The play aims at shocking audiences by providing them with a raw kind of truth that so often does not accompany discussions on sexuality and violence.  It attempts to hold up a mirror to each and every one of us so that we may reflect upon our enduring obsession with everything sex in the midst of its politicization in Western culture.

The actors most confidently graze the space.  In an early scene from the play, Alexander (David Christo), in fact, recounts his childhood as a shepherd to friend Jesse (Philip Stonhouse), hilariously embodying the sheep which his sister- whom he has “a thing” for- was most fond of growing up.  They excitedly approach the home of Annette (Vivien Endicott-Douglas) and her strangely intimate friend Alma (Ingrid Rae Doucet) where they anticipate getting “laid.”  The four move from real-time action to slow motion to grotesquely stylized sequences.  It is quite remarkable how Alice Tuan’s script, together with the bold and brave choices of director Zack Russell (unexpectedly a novice), takes us on a rollercoaster ride from feeling aroused to horrified to aroused, and so on and so forth.  While it is not surprising that this play has been deemed by many as “unstageable” (despite having garnered several staged readings), its world premiere certainly deserves some recognition.

Every now and then comes along the type of script which acts almost as a creator’s playground; that is, non-linear text, strange intertextuality, and ambivalent stage directions allow for never-ending exploratory opportunities accompanied by challenging decision-making.  I focused part of my graduate research on such a play (Dream, But Maybe Not by Pirandello) written with surrealist sensitivity and inherent contradictions, starting with that of its title.  As I began to track the production history of that work, I was amazed at just how many performances had been offered as part of theatre workshops, and university courses.  To me the above points bare resemblance to Ajax.  For one, its title refers to both the well-known cleaning agent and Sophocles’ Greek tragedy (and I originally thought it made reference to the Ontario town, but that’s beside the point).  It is not clear to me how its parenthetical subtitle comes in to effect, but I would like to believe it cleverly speaks to the angst felt by a then new graduate Tuan who feared her provocative work was unproducible, in general; a feeling she used to fuel the writing of this piece almost a decade and a half ago.  I suppose in that way it marked its own fate.

In actuality, the play offers us much more than an allusion to a faulty god.  It presents us with an array of themes from incest to rape to homosexuality, and, as such, really makes reference to several Greek tragedies.  On the other hand, Ajax is the cleaning agent which supposedly helps to cleanse the characters of their sins.  Or, at the very least, of the pomegranate juice which Alma and Annette have doused themselves with while preparing for the “social” turned “sex party” Annette (innocently) desires to host.  The stark white set and costumes (Jane Dunlop) provide the perfect backdrop, and they, definitely, scream “something crazy is going to happen here” which, of course, it does.  In the last segment of the play, Alexander runs around bleeding from his crotch, torn off (a contemporary tribute to castration) by a scornful Jesse who cannot accept the burning homosexual tendencies that induce him to gaze towards his buddy in order to properly enjoy head from Alma, or seek other “tousling” in order to successfully perform intercourse with Annette.  But the most disturbing tribute to the theme of gender abuse comes in the form of everything from monetary bills to “weinettes” placed by an intoxicated Jesse inside an equally intoxicated Annette.  Sometimes they are in silhouette, and, other times, they are on stage with their bodies contorted with sophistication, so as to not reveal all the secrets.  Once again, Russell’s fluid direction and understanding of tragicomic aid in the creation of stage pictures that are, one minute, fun and playful, and the next, scary and dangerous.  It’s this daringly illustrated commentary on our society’s fascination with sexual perversion that hits you over the head.

I tend to be a sucker for good narrative.  And I am fully aware that narrative comes in many forms and that the meaning of the very word “text” has expanded in recent years to include visual texts.  But image-based narratives can be just as effective when presented well, with an equally strong story to tell.  The work of Marie Clements always comes to mind when I make this argument.  Without the strong articulation of story that we crave as human-beings, we walk away feeling stimulated but not quite sure of what to do with the accompanying sensorial overload.

Above all, Ajax is to be really celebrated for the performances it drew out.  This can be confirmed by the extra loud applause given by the audience which had otherwise remained silent throughout this production, other than the scarce laughter heard after the poignantly humorous lines.  What the script might lack in story, the actors made up for with the focus and commitment of the very gods they speak about in the show.  Alex, in fact, offers much needed comic relief with his serious obsession over the epithet Alexander (the Great).  You can only imagine how Annette (who he finds “hot” though nothing like his sister) accidently calling him a series of other A names would set him off, only to turn him on later –echoing perfectly that conundrum between pleasure and hurt I spoke of earlier.  Each of the other characters share a deeply-rooted crisis that is articulated by the actors with brilliant subtlety: while it is clear Jesse and Annette cannot control their urges for one another, amidst their drug-induced splendor, something in their eyes reveals they are searching for more meaning behind their conflicted actions.  Alma, perhaps, comes closest to achieving some form of release, expressing the pains of her past, but remaining trapped in that risky pornographic world she was once a part of, waiting desperately for her husband to return.

Great works of art, I believe, can both affect and inspire.  And in the best case scenario they force us to ask questions too.  This play successfully reveals a most dynamic representation of the embodiment of gender and sexuality, accomplished through grotesque simultaneously erotic and violent stage pictures.  But it hasn’t been a secret for quite some time that governments and media quintessentially seek to control our true identities by imposing something more “free” and “fun” on us.  Therefore, I question how necessary it is for a show to take up seventy-five minutes of time in order to get that message across visually.  See, the real miracle of Ajax cleaner is that it starts off as white and then it solidifies into blue upon contact with water.  It is kind of representative of the catatonic state these characters are left in.  Unfortunately, it is also seems representative of the state we are all too often left in as theatre-goers or citizens at large, affected in some way, but left feeling mellow with questionable room for outer world transcendence.  It will be interesting to see if this play’s life will consist of more premieres, or of it will lend itself to the classroom as often happens with such dynamic pieces, wrought with potential.

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