At this point in American history, we probably need no reminder that politics is a game played by sanctimonious fools. Nevertheless, we may take some comfort in the knowledge that the rules of the game have changed little since the time of Sophocles. Separated by 8,000 miles and 2,500 years from ancient Greece, Pangea World Theater is finding new magic in Sophocles' Ajax, an indictment of political misanthropy far more eloquent than the daily spewings of our contemporary pundits.
Though the themes of this rarely performed tragedy are familiar--a hero brought low by hubris--Pangea's production is as rich and exotic as the dithyrambic religious ceremonies at the play's roots. From the moment the cowled chorus enters the arena lit by flickering candles, we are immersed in ritual. There is silence as Odysseus (E.G. Bailey) receives the coveted armor of Achilles, a cloth of arcane symbols that wraps around his body like a burial shroud. This hush is shattered by the agonized howl of Ajax (David Ward), who emerges from the shadows as a towering warrior clad in black armor and splattered with blood. Driven mad by jealousy, Ajax plots to kill the Greek generals who have cheated him of his trophy.
Another figure moves in the shadow, materializing from what first appeared to be an inanimate mannequin. It is Athena (Nancy Kim), come to foil the proud Ajax by tricking him into slaughtering the sheep herds of the Greeks in lieu of their leaders. Hidden behind an implacable white mask, Athena moves over the polished black stage with the stylized grace of a Japanese obon dancer. Ajax disappears to commit the bloody deed and Athena reveals herself to Odysseus. The chorus rises in a mournful dirge: "Ajax, my lord. Ajax, my lord."
That Ajax is the least seen of Sophocles' tragedies should come as no surprise to those familiar with the somewhat perfunctory plot. By the beginning of the second act, Ajax has succumbed to shame and impaled himself upon the sword of Hector. His wife Tecmessa (Lola Lesheim) and son Eurysaces (Zeke Shepherd-Lykken) are left to lament his downfall, while the remaining Greeks argue whether he should be honored in death. The generals, Menelaus (Alberto Panelli) and Agamemnon (Robert-Bruce Brake), argue that Ajax was an enemy and thus undeserving of a hero's burial. The fallen hero's brother Teucer (Luu Pham) takes the antithetical position. There are bitter recriminations, accusations of injustice, and much arguing over the nuances of intention and deed.
To keep the tragedy from becoming as banal as, say, a Senate hearing, Pangea World director Dipankar Mukherjee cleaves stubbornly to the aesthetic defined in the play's opening scenes. The chorus moves in a choreographed unit around Ta-Coumba Aiken's Spartan cloth-and-wood set, lamenting and contorting to reflect every change in the story's tragic arc. The spectacle they act out is not so much a partisan debate as it is a stylized ceremony, a ritual reflection on the nature of the political game. Near the end of the first act, Athena says that "the balance of things may rise and fall, for a day can bring all mortal greatness low and a day can lift it up." And we know it is true because we have seen it.
An equally reverential treatment of a younger and decidedly less reverent classic, the Furniture Company's production of Eugene Ionesco's The Chairs succeeds not through the resonance of its ontological thesis (that existence is a cruel joke played largely at our expense), but through its broad sense of whimsy.
Granted, the humor of the absurdists often feels as dated and dull as Greek tragedy. We know by now that no matter how long we wait, Godot is not going to show up. Indeed, in our irony-saturated culture, the very notion that life is an absurd farce seems passé. Nevertheless, The Chairs is still funny--viciously so if played as a purely comical reflection on the inadequacy of language. The Furniture Company's sprightly production proves that Ionesco's comedy depends on little more than a bare set and competent actors to succeed.
Like Beckett's tramps, Ionesco's ashen octogenarian protagonists are waiting. The old man (Steven Flamm) and his wife, the old woman (Barbara Fayth Humphrey), live on an island surrounded by a vast, dark sea. To pass the empty hours, they coo at each other and reflect on the life they may or may not have shared. The old man waxes nostalgic about Paris, only to be informed by his doting spouse that "Paris never existed, my little one." Stranded at the very edge of oblivion, the couple tries to construct a world of words, unaware of the fact that language has come unmoored from its prelapsarian meaning.
All is not lost, however, for the old man has prepared a manifesto to deliver to posterity. The couple invites a gathering of witnesses, the leftovers of humanity: all the politicians, paparazzi, popes, and supreme beings they can imagine. One by one the guests arrive--though they're invisible. In the play's vaudevillian climax (by his own admission, Ionesco was heavily influenced by the comedy of the Marx brothers), the old couple races in a lunatic ballet to find enough chairs to seat the crowd of incorporeal visitors. "Who are all these people?" the woman squeals. "What do all these people want?"
At last, with the host seated, the Orator (Michael Robertson) arrives to deliver the old man's message. The Orator is a silent specter, dressed like the serial killer from Scream. In a final cruel irony, the message is gibberish and pantomime. Ionesco's bleak vision of the human comedy nullifies the very possibility of meaningful communication. So why are we laughing?
Ajax runs through February 21 at the Hennepin Center for the Arts; (612) 573-4753.The Chairs runs every Thursday in February at the Bryant-Lake Bowl; (612) 825-8949.