On March 7, the production company Theater of War came to campus to present a short reading of Sophocles’ Ajax and facilitate a discussion on the costs of war, supplemented by a panel of veterans and family members of veterans from the Williamstown community.
Theater of War’s project is essentially a two-act piece, the first being the actual reading of scenes from a play (either Ajax or Philoctetes), and the second being the discussion. Although the event was advertised as a play reading, the actual performance only lasted about 30 minutes. However, I did not wish it went any longer. Each of the actors had one emotional level, and it was pure agony and wailing. It felt as though the actors, or possibly the director, did not trust in their craft to play a story truthfully, which would have left space for the audience members to have their own reactions. Instead, it was very clear that I was supposed to feel grief, pain and loss. There was very little space for me to engage with the work myself, because it had already been engaged with for me. I only had to sit back and be told how I was supposed to feel.
The actress playing Tecmessa, in particular, had only one emotional level, and she dialed it up to an 11. The first words out of her mouth were wailed and full of agony, and for the entire piece she did not deviate from that level. There was no place for the emotion to go, so that the moment of pure grief – when Ajax commits suicide and his wife Tecmessa wails over his body – was at the same emotional level as where the readers started. There was nowhere, emotionally, the actors could aim for. The actor playing the chorus (who was also the artistic director/translator/facilitator) also had one level, but it was somehow devoid of all emotion. He delivered everything as though he thought of himself as the smartest person in the room, but he clearly did not connect with or register the emotional depth of what he was saying. Overall, I was not nearly as interested in the performance as I was in the discussion afterwards.
The panel featured Jake Bingaman ’19, a former Navy SEAL and special operations combat medic; Howard Carter, a retired master chief petty officer; Howard Garbarsky, a former Air Force photographer and veteran of both the Vietnam and First Gulf wars; Becca Filson, the spouse of a wounded Iraq War veteran; and Stephen Roy, the director of Veteran Services for North Berkshire County.
Each of the panelists gave a brief talk about what struck them about the play, and then the discussion was opened to the audience. Bryan Doerries, the artistic director and translator of this particular version of Ajax, asked a few questions of the audience, the most important being why we thought Sophocles wrote the play. People gave various answers, ranging from “to raise awareness” to “to show that they [war heroes] are human” to “to show the true costs of war.” This is effectively what Theater of War aims to accomplish as well. According to its website, “By presenting these plays to military and civilian audiences, our hope is to de-stigmatize psychological injury, increase awareness of post-deployment psychological health issues, disseminate information regarding available resources and foster greater family, community and troop resilience.”
Although the reading itself was not by any means the best reading of a Greek play I have seen, it sparked not only a dialogue that was valuable and eye-opening to many students, myself included, who have had very little exposure to the armed forces but also became a space to talk for people who may feel that their voices on this subject are not always heard. One thing remained very clear at the end of this evening: we must make space on this campus and in the larger community for people who feel marginalized, feel lost or hopeless or may be struggling.
The Theater of War project presented a two-act piece; a reading from a play and a discussion. Photo courtesy of Randall Flippinger.