For a change of pace, this week we bring you a glimpse of the working process of a small New York theater company, a hint at the seams that underlie the shows we normally see from a plush chair in the house of the theater and then review for you. The company in question is LightBox, which is just about five years old now; the show is Ajax: 100% Fun, which opens on Wednesday at the Culture Project. Yesterday, at the invitation of director Ellen Beckerman, we went to a rehearsal at the Trisha Brown dance studios, where – in the absence of set or costumes or footlights – we gained a measure of insight into how the theatre creations we love so much actually come together.
First, some context: Ajax, for those of you unfamiliar with the Sophocles play and/or didn’t particularly notice his presence in the Iliad, was Achilles’ cousin and reputedly the strongest Greek after him. Because of the goddess Athena’s interference on behalf of crafty Odysseus, however, Ajax is denied the gift of Achilles’ legendary armor when Achilles is murdered. Ajax is furious and intends to kill the Greek kings, but Athena again intervenes and tricks him, and when he discovers this he commits suicide, precipitating a struggle over his burial. As you can guess from the title, though, this show isn’t a retread of Sophocles’ story. Rather, Beckerman and Shawn Fagan (who plays Ajax) told us after the rehearsal, it’s a record of the company members' intense engagement with the Greek play; during its development, the actors brought in poems, articles, songs, whatever resonated with their understanding of the ancient play. As Beckerman recalled, one thing that kept showing up was accounts by soldiers in Iraq of their experiences there, and this became a guiding theme; these other texts were woven in with the Greek monologues and choruses to make something quite new, interrogating our assumptions about masculinity, aggression's role in civilization, and the too-easy dichotomy of friend-enemy.
Unfortunately (or not) we arrived a little late at the rehearsal, so we missed the live fish-gutting that takes place at the start; the only evidence was a plastic cutting-board and some vaguely smelly Whole Foods bags. Odysseus (Robert M. Johanson) was in an old green T-shirt; Ajax was in shorts and most of the rest of the eight-person cast was in dance warm-ups (there isn’t a huge lot of dancing, but the show has strong physical elements throughout). Three days away from the opening, as we would expect, the actors mostly had their parts memorized and stayed fully in character, never skimping on emotional heat or marking movement. A few times someone would ask for a line prompt, which was supplied by one of the crew members sitting up front reading along with the script for that purpose; plus there was one short scene that had yet to be set, and one passage that was experimented with and rejected. Music came from a laptop hooked up to a boombox; the bare-walled dance studio had great acoustics, which also enhanced the couple of live-music segments. Beckerman sat on the floor with her notes, amid backpacks and coats and water bottles, watching intently and nodding every so often when an actor would nail something. Even though the final product isn’t going to have a huge set or fanciful costumes, we still felt far removed from how we’d experience the show from the Culture Project audience – without the darkened theater house lights, the program in hand, the noises of other theater-goers around us, it was just impossible to be in the same mindset. To tell you the truth, it was pretty refreshing.
All told, the run-through lasted about two hours, at which point everyone gathered to talk about what went right and wrong, and to work out the logistics of the last few days before the opening. We definitely don’t envy them that part of the process, or the series of headaches it has been just to raise funds and get things together to this point; as Beckerman noted, they’ve had to put on this whole show for less than the cost of a single prop in a Broadway production, and that means not being able to pay actors properly, making do with very circumscribed rehearsal space and time, not getting everything they might have wanted with costumes and set, and so on. That’s what we love about off-off-Broadway shows, though: we know it’s rough on the artists, but in our opinion the hardship breeds more creativity, and requires more enthusiasm and dedication, than Broadway productions that can throw money around like nothing. In any case, though we can’t pass final judgment since we only saw a rehearsal, we were impressed already with what we saw of both the script and the acting, so we’d be willing to bet it’ll all be that much more powerful by the opening this Wednesday, taken in from an actual theater seat.
Ajax: 100% Fun is at the Culture Project, 45 Bleecker St., from Feb. 22-March 12. Shows are Wed.-Sat. 8pm, Sun. 3pm, Mon. 7pm. Tickets via Smarttix.
Photo of Ajax statue from Philip Resheph's online companion to the Trojan War.