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Wednesday, November 5, 2014

War in the Theater—From Ajax to A.J.

David Strathairn, Jake Gyllenhaal, Reg E. Cathey. Photo: Beowulf Sheehan
By David Hsieh

  • A panelist in active combat said she was reluctant to offer help to her brothers when they came back from the battlefield; she worried that their wives would see it as interfering. 
  • Another panelist said that a former combat-mate’s suicide a couple of days earlier prompted him to speak out. 
  • An audience member who was a veteran said he didn't realize that he was hurting his wife until she forced him to see a therapist. 
  • Another said she works with LGBT community and saw a lot of similarities between ancient warriors and those she's trying to help. 
  • Still another said Sophocles was trying to sound an urgent call to action—that in real distress, words are inadequate and won’t get things done. 

These are some of the responses from a unique presentation on September 28 at the BAM Fisher. Theater of War is a table reading of two Sophocles’ tragedies—Ajax and Philoctetes—with the purpose of prompting the audience to understand the psychological impact wars impose on combat warriors and people close to them. Four actors participated in the BAM event. Frances McDormand, with short platinum hair, holding the script in front of her as if proclaiming an oracle, was a majestic Athena—until she put down her glasses and script and turned into an anguished Tecmessa, Ajax’s suffering wife who was powerless in preventing her husband’s suicide. Sitting next to her was Jake Gyllenhaal, arms crossed on his chest, shoulders slouched on the tabletop, ranting over the injustice imposed on him by his fellow councilors. Reg E. Cathey made the opportunist Odysseus almost noble. And with his unruly white hair and beard, David Strathairn looked exactly like Philoctetes who was abandoned on an island for 10 years.

The discussion with the audience was moderated by Bryan Doerries, a co-founder of Outside the Wire, which has put on these readings 273 times in places as far as Japan and Hawaii, often on military bases. A classics translator by profession, he is also the director of these readings, and moderates in a way that can echo a college professor, a talk-show host, a motivational speaker, and a guru who uses ancient texts to conduct group healing. He asked the audience why Sophocles, who also led combat in his time, wrote these plays and performed them in front of an audience that also served in the army.

One of the panelists, Maj. Joseph Geraci, told the audience that as veterans return home, they face many challenges—including how to execute the inconceivable act of killing another human being, how to imagine yourself on the receiving end of that act, how to reintegrate into a community that may not understand this psychological suffering, and how to transform from this experience.

BASETRACK Live. Photo by Caleb Wertenbaker 
Taking up this challenge is one of the reasons that BAM is presenting two related theatrical productions this season. After Theater of War, BASETRACK Live comes to the Harvey Theater from November 11 to 15. This work uses spoken words, live music, video, and audio to tell the stories of active-duty marines as they experience and are transformed by war. The central characters are a couple whose married life is severely tested because of the separation and aftereffect. Their story is interwoven into those of other marines. Strikingly, all words are taken verbatim from interviews with real people or taken from the social media that served as the inspiration of this theater work.
Anne Hamburger, the producer who is bringing the show to BAM and around the country, echoes the thought expressed by many during the Theater of War: “Many people enlist when they are very young, and then go overseas for multiple deployments, placing real strain on their families. The war also changes people so when they come home, it is a huge, often misunderstood adjustment.” She also points to the BASETRACK Live website where many audiences have posted thoughtful comments to show the issue's importance.

BAM is conducting extensive outreach to the military community. Ilex Bien-Aime of Government and Community Affairs at BAM is spearheading this initiative. He has been actively communicating with commanders, legions, and other military and veterans' organizations. A certain number of free tickets are set aside for veterans every night. “We would like to have a mix of military and civilian audience in every performance so there could be a dialogue between them,” said Ilex.

We want to hear from the veterans’ community. StoryCorps’ Military Voices initiative records, preserves, and shares the stories of veterans, service members and their families. Join StoryCorps for a reception after our BASETRACK Live performances on November 12 and 15 to continue the conversation.

In addition, starting on November 11—Veterans Day—BAM Rose Cinemas will offer discounted tickets ($10 for regularly priced screenings) to veterans with proper IDs. The message is clear: Veterans are our heroes, and BAM welcomes you!

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