Frank explores past and present in 'Ajax in Iraq'

Categories: Theater
Images courtesy Frank Theatre
​For its latest show, Frank Theatre is going deep into the past, and right up to modern day. Ajax in Iraq presents the ancient Greek work through two lenses. In one, Ajax is a soldier in the Trojan War. In the other, A.J. is an American soldier in Iraq. Over the course of Ellen McLaughlin's new play, their journeys mirror each other, especially with the guidance of the goddess of war, Athena, and a betrayal by their commanding officers.

"Both she (A.J.) and Ajax go mad following the betrayal, and act out similar responses," says McLaughlin. The parallels between the historical and the contemporary, she aptly points out, are not so far apart; the questions that drive us crazy with our view of the Iraq mess are likely similar to the Greeks who witnessed the Trojan War.

McLaughlin has tackled modern interpretations of the Greeks before, such as in her version of Oedipus (which was presented several seasons ago at the Guthrie Theater), and has recently published The Greek Plays, which brings together eight of her works. Ajax in Iraq premiered earlier in the year in New York City, and very soon after, director Wendy Knox learned of the piece.

"The day the review appeared in the New York Times, I got two calls from Frank repeat offenders Gary Briggle and Beth Cleary, both of who said it sounded very much like a Frank play," she says. "I checked out the review, thought it sounded intriguing, and made a note to look into it. A couple of weeks later, Facebook recommended that I be friends with Ellen McLaughlin. I had met her a hundred years ago, and the Facebook nudge reminded me that I wanted to get a script and I didn't know her agent, so I friended her and asked for a copy of the script, which she sent. I sat on it for a few weeks, then one insomnia-filled night when my dad was in the hospital, I had a look at it and I couldn't stop reading. It was very much a Frank show."

The director also found the show's tone to be important. "The play has a very touching, pro-soldier voice in it. It centers on why we fight wars, why the Trojan War took place, and why we're in Iraq. It's not just a political bashing of a particular president, and there is a distinction between the policy of a nation and the role of a soldier, which makes the story very human," Knox says.

The cast features Katie Guentzel as A.J., Rich Remedios as Ajax, and Taous Khazem as Athena. The rest of the ensemble includes Maria Asp, Dawn Brodey, Joy Dolo, Tessa Flynn, Ryan Henderson, Leif Jurgensen, Christopher Kehoe, Adelin Phelps, and Logan Verdoorn.

"They love the mash-up of the classic with the contemporary, and then there's a haka dance thrown in and some contact improv movement, tied to these deep, intense themes. It's a total Frank-fest," Knox says.

Ajax in Iraq previews Thursday and opens Friday, running through November 27 at the Playwrights' Center in Minneapolis. 

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Zander Lee
Zander Lee

The haka was used in the pre-show for MACBETH done by Theatre Coup D'etat in late August at the Lowry Lab in St. Paul this year between the animal work done by the actors and right before the play started. The entire cast performed it right out to the audience. It helped to set the mood for an amazing show that more people should have seen.  I wonder if they got the idea to put it in this show from that or if its part of the script?  Typical of FRANK to cast a show with a lot of the same people they always use. I see a couple new names in there, so that's good, but I'm tired of seeing the same faces and actors in their shows. Frank does good work for the most part, and I look forward to this show.  The script sounds fascinating.  Kudos for the discovery of it. 


There are 12 actors in the cast of AJAX IN IRAQ. Four of them have worked with Frank previously. That's EIGHT new faces.

Frank is also committed to working with a rotating cast of actors on an ongoing basis, so seeing "a lot of the same people [we] always use" will likely continue to be a feature of our work.

And no, we did not get the idea of haka from your production, which we did not see. We explored it in a workshop of our version of METAMORPHOSIS and were then surprised to find it written into the script of AJAX.

Christopher Kehoe
Christopher Kehoe

It's a stage direction in the actual script, almost humorously nonchalant: "they chant together, performing a Maori haka." It's definitely an interesting piece of theatrical connective tissue between what happens just before and just afterwards...

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