‘Ajax in Iraq,’ a play about sexual violence in the military, opens tonight in Santa Monica

By Michael Aushenker

“Ajax in Iraq” finds parallels between modern and ancient wounds of warfare

“Ajax in Iraq” finds parallels between modern and ancient wounds of warfare

A “friendly fire” sexual violence situation is the essence of Ellen McLaughlin’s topical “Ajax in Iraq,” in which a female soldier is violated by her commanding officer while fighting the Iraq War.

“Ajax” refers to the Trojan War hero of Greek mythology, who suffers from battlefield post-traumatic stress disorder. The pairing connects contemporary issues with those that have existed in wars throughout history.

“It covers war and civilization, and how much it has and has not changed,” said John Farmanesh-Bocca, the play’s director and choreographer of “Ajax in Iraq.”

While tonight’s staging at the Miles Memorial Playhouse marks the Westside debut of “Ajax in Iraq,” this is not the first time McLaughlin’s play has been staged in Southern California. In the fall of 2012, a production was mounted at Cal State Long Beach, also by Farmanesh-Bocca.

Farmanesh-Bocca trained at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts before serving as directing fellow at The Juilliard School’s Drama division from 2003 to 2005. He now serves as guest faculty at Tisch School’s Classical Studio.

Farmanesh-Bocca credits Joanne Gordon, former artistic director at Cal State Long Beach Theatre Dept., for introducing him to the piece.

“It was overwhelming at first, but beautiful,” Farmanesh-Bocca said.

Ajax” was originally performed at Harvard-American Repertory Theatre. Farmanesh-Bocca knew a few former students in that production and called them.

“What they told me made me feel like I had the freedom to do the version of the play I wanted to do,” he said.

In Long Beach the play was so well accepted, said Farmanesh-Bocca, “they decided to invite a lot of the veterans from neighboring VA hospital. It kind of brought the whole experience full-circle.”

His play, in fact, melds two spheres: the Greek classical world and a modern-day story derived from actual interviews with Iraq veterans. And at least three high-profile recent news items regarding such superior/subordinate abuse between military personnel — including the transgressions of General David Petraeus that led to his resignation as C.I.A. director and the case against Lt. Col. Jay Morse, the Army’s former top sexual assault prosecutor accused of groping a former colleague — have given McLaughlin’s material unintended topicality.

“I was like, My God!  Look what’s going on! It’s not diminishing, it’s growing!” Farmanesh-Bocca said. “Only 1/5th of abuses are reported, and how many of those are taken seriously?”

Farmanesh-Bocca’s said his production “amps up the visual and athleticism to the level of almost a sporting event. They’re military, they’re warriors.”

Because of the subject matter, Farmanesh-Bocca found it imperative to cast young men in the key military roles. So he carried over three young actors from his Cal State Long Beach production: Jonathan Wong, a Marine presently in active duty; Chelsea Brynd and Brandon Hitchcock.

The play also stars Aaron Hendry, Emma Bell and Courtney Munch.

While there’s a risk that adding an acrobatic element to this serious piece may unintentionally trivialize the play’s sensitive topic, Farmanesh-Bocca considers his approach a way to push the story forward.

“If you give the audience something they can’t take their eyes off of, they can’t look away. It creates something ineffable. We try to give it the appropriate gravity.”

Ultimately, Farmanesh-Bocca relishes breaking in a relatively unknown work on the West Coast.

“I live for it,” he said. “There’s no reward to theater anymore except this. To do something that begins a conversation.”

“Ajax in Iraq” opens at 8 p.m. Thursday and continues at 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and at 5 p.m. Sundays through June 1 at Miles Memorial Playhouse, 1130 Lincoln Blvd., Santa Monica. Tickets are $25. Call (818) 618-4772 or visit NotManApart.com.