By Desiree Sanchez and Peter Meineck; Directed by Desiree Sanchez
Produced by Aquila Theatre
Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 4.23.17
BAM Fisher, 321 Ashland Place
by Ran Xia on 4.20.17
Tyler La Marr, James Stanton, Anthony Michael Irizarry, Adrienne Brammer, and James "JB" Becton in Our Trojan War.
Photo by Richard Termine
BOTTOM LINE: A poignant anatomy of modern warfare and political dichotomies through a somber and enlightening reconstruction of ancient texts.
Sometimes we forget about the affiliation between theatre and war, or we pretend it’s not there. After all, one births beauty, and the other leads to death and destruction. But then again, Aeschylus was a warrior, and theatre, especially tragedy, has often been a means of healing for those scathed by the fire of war.
Aquila Theatre’s Desiree Sanchez and Peter Meineck partner with members of the Warrior Chorus (a national initiative that trains veterans to present programs based on ancient literature) to create Our Trojan War, in which the juxtaposition of ancient texts and modern-day combat experiences draws parallels between the exhausting and shameful Achaean—Trojan conflicts, and stories that frequent the news today. The result is a loaded piece.
The prologue sets a somber mood—veteran ensemble member John Meyer’s poem "In the First Version of the Story" is delivered by a procession of soldiers in camouflage, with each offering a different account of Odysseus at war: the man in the legend is heroic in some versions, and despicable in others.
After the prologue, the main plot begins. A team of U.S. soldiers, on an inexplicit mission in the Middle East, breaks into the house of a teacher (James “JB” Becton), and discovers a cache of some of the most renounced ancient texts. With a stroke of defiance the teacher starts to recite from The Iliad, and the soldiers then demand translation of the opening invocation to the Muses. Realities morph into one another as the soldiers reenact scenes from The Iliad. Squad Intel NCO (Ryan Wuestewald) becomes proud Achilles, who clashes with Agamemnon (Meyer, who plays a Squad NCO) over returning Chryseis to Troy, while the squad’s Arabic Interpreter (Anthony Michael Irizarry) becomes the prophet Calchas.
Through the ancient texts, the soldiers and the teacher begin to understand each other. They also start to recognize that, if the Trojan War was simply a game between the gods, nothing’s changed today—the gods are now just international arms dealers and governments with agendas. This is aptly illustrated with the projection of an air raid that coincides with the description of Apollo’s unforgiving arrows. In this way, Our Trojan War questions the purpose of war, as well as the concept of justice, democracy, leadership, and knowledge. For instance, the extensive influence of a corrupt and ignorant political leadership is explored with scenes from Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus.
The next story takes us to the island of Scheria. But before that, Tyler La Marr brings us possibly the most powerful moment of the play with the story of Tafteesh (meaning "search," written by Dan Murphy), the only Arabic word the soldiers have mastered besides action film grunts as they break into the locals’ houses. For the soldiers, the word tafteesh sometimes means this: "We’re here now to search for a reason for being here now," or "We’re here now, so you can search for the self-respect to tolerate our fucking presence."
La Marr's Odysseus (a "god-like" mortal) is a captivating presence as well, with the charisma and tenderness that reminds one of Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn, except chattier, which is useful when it comes to complimenting princess Nausikaa until the Phaiakian royals agree to help the shipwrecked king of Ithaca. Following the journey of Odysseus, we are then introduced to Circe the witch goddess (a robust and charming portrayal by Adrienne Brammer, with a monologue by Jenny Pacanowski), who points out the flawed leadership of Odysseus as well as the lasting pain of war as she turns the men into a sounder of swine.
As if the teacher is Scheherazade to the U.S. soldiers’ Shahryar, the stories gradually affect changes in the marines’ attitude towards the Arabic scholar, invoking doubts about their fighting in the name of democracy. The soldiers finally accept the wisdom of those ancient texts, and express gratitude towards the storyteller as they leave the house with a newfound respect. It makes you think that if Homer, Sophocles, and Plato are required reads at school everywhere, there might be fewer wars in the world. However, Our Trojan War also points out the unfortunate truth: "the people with knowledge are not necessarily the people in charge."
Make no mistake—Our Trojan War is not out to entertain. It’s a heavy piece loaded with layers of narrative that raises a plethora of challenging questions for the audience to digest and reflect on. The stories are told from a veteran’s perspective, and it’s appropriate that more than half of the performers have served in the U.S. military. The ensemble delivers the piece with the utter sincerity that comes from some of their true experiences. There are certainly flaws that lie in the play's density. The quotes by iconic figures including George Washington, Emma Lazarus, Eleanor Roosevelt, and MLK seem a forced, rather than organic, addition, presumably used to elevate the ancient texts to a contemporary platform. However, this does not negate the value of Our Trojan War as an important commentary on modern warfare through the scope of the classics. And indeed, it’s an honor to witness truth on stage.
(Our Trojan War plays at BAM Fisher, 321 Ashland Place, through April 23, 2017. The running time is 1 hour 20 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Wednesday through Fridays at 7:30, Saturday at 2 and 7:30, and Sunday at 3. Tickets are $45 ($20 for veterans) and are available at bam.org or by calling 718-636-4100. Fore more information visit aquilatheatre.com.)
Our Trojan War is by Desiree Sanchez and Peter Meineck, based on works by Sophocles, Euripides, Plato, Homer, and modern combat veterans of the Warrior Chorus, John Meyer (US Army Ranger), Jenny Pacanowski (US Army Combat Medic), and Dan Murphy (Marine). Directed by Desiree Sanchez. Projection Design is by Dave Tennent. Lighting Design is by Joel Moritz. Sound Design is by Andy Evan Cohen. Military Consultation is by Neath Williams. Production Stage Manager is Shae Candelaria. Production Manager is Joshua Shain. Technical Director is Robert Rogers.
The cast is Alexandra E. Acosta, Anthony Michael Irizarry, Ryan Wuestewald, JB Becton (U.S. Army), Tyler La Marr (U.S. Marine), James Stanton (U.S. Air Force), John Meyer (U.S. Army) and Adrienne
Brammer (U.S. Air Force).