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War is a force that gives us theater

Brent Harris plays Alax at A.R.T. PHOTO: Michael Lutch

What would a Greek chorus look like in Cambridge in 2011 when the country is at war on two fronts? Director Sarah Benson imagines that chorus as Harvard leaders, U.S. veterans, college students, activists and many others whose images are projected onto a Jumbotron-style video mosaic at American Reportory Theater, where Sophocles’ war-time drama Ajax is running through March 12 at the Loeb Drama Center.

Ajax’s story is as old as storytelling itself, and yet its themes of damaged soldiers, traumatized families and the unifying relationships of warriors are as contemporary as today’s headlines. Last year alone, Fort Hood in Texas reported a record number of suicides — 22 — which is roughly double that of suicides in the civilian population. Ajax’s own power over life and death offers insight into this statistic, and Benson turns a contemporary prism on the story with set designer David Zinn’s open multi-purpose room that could be a mess hall in Iraq or Iran.

The spirit of Ajax is also resonant of the 2010 Academy Award-nominated documentary Restrepo. In that film, a U.S. solder says: “The theater is always there especially at night when you can’t see what’s coming at you. You can’t get a better high. It’s like crack. Once you’ve been shot at, you can’t top that.”

Of course, the soldier is talking about the adreneline rush in the real theater of war. Ajax harnesses that adreneline rush for performance theater. But the two theaters are — in the words of the war correspondent Chris Hedges — a force that gives us meaning.

Meaning is exactly the mission of  Bryan Doerries, artistic director of Theater of War Productions, which is in collaboration with A.R.T. during the run of Ajax. On Feb. 28, Doerries presented excerpts from Theater of War’s touring productions of Ajax and Philoctetes, then facilitated responses by military-connected panelists and then led the audience in a deeply reflective and passionate discussion of both Sophocles (a tragedian and war commander) and the impact of war on our own soldiers, their families, caretakers, friends and communities.

As Doerries likes to say: The warm bodies in his audience are the Greek chorus of our time, adding the experience, insights and narratives that bring the work alive — not the other way around. “Our performance was just the pep rally,” he said as he opened the floor to citizen commentary. In Sophocles’ time, an annual event in the theater would have given voice and catharsis to 17,000 citizen soldiers. In those outdoor arenas of Athens, it is as if, said Doerries, “storytelling was born to translate the stories of soldiers.”

Several U.S. veterans in the audience that night spoke publicly of their displacement, the isolation they feel from their communties and units. V.A. hospital professionals who were also in the crowd augmented the stories with their own about the PTSD pain they had witnessed behind hospital walls. College students — one whose voice cracked through tears — talked about their unacceptable removal from the war and how the tales of Ajax and Philoctetes — and the revelations that followed in the audience — will activate them as Americans. “Seeing this performance today, I can’t think of a better way to live in compassion,” said one student. Panelist Imelda Fisher of the Army Community Service at the base in Fort Devens, Mass., reminded audience members to “smile” — that our veterans also needed us to love them, laugh with them and understand that while war is hell, veterans also have many good memories of their work and lives.

Doerries, who has brought the Theater of War to more than 140 audiences of veterans and civilians, is headed to Gitmo this week with his Brooklyn-based company, but director and playwright Ellen McLaughlin will lead a similar discussion after performances 7 p.m. Monday March 7 at the Loeb. The event is free and open to the public. A.R.T. is also offering discounted $35 tickets for Ajax through March 6.

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