LA JOLLA — The unanswered question about Peter Sellars is: Is he just playing theater games, or does he mean it?
In "Ajax" at the La Jolla Playhouse, I think he means it. This was probably the show that led Sellars' bosses at the Kennedy Center to decide that they had better give him a "sabbatical" from the American National Theatre while there was still some money left in the bank. Sellars' production of Sophocles' tragedy is not a grabber. Its visuals are bizarre, its text is difficult and its message is uncomfortable, particularly for a Washington audience.
But there's something going on here. Rather than doing a high-wire act on top of the play--as has been known to happen in other Sellars productions--the director is clearly trying to dig out the myth under it and to relate that myth to the national mind-set just now. This is exactly what the Greek playwrights tried to do at the annual festivals, and the effort has got to be respected.
The mind-set addressed is that which sees the world as a permanent armed camp in which the point of life is to be top gun. So the Greeks feel in "Ajax," after nine years of war with Troy. They are equally at variance with each other. Ajax is the angriest, having been denied the shield of the great dead war-hero Achilles. He sets out to kill his fellow generals in their sleep.
He gets the blood bath he craves (literally a blood bath at La Jolla, with actor Howie Seago knee-deep in gore). But when Ajax wakes from his ecstasy, he finds that it's all a trick. Athena has caused him to see men where there were, in fact, animals. He has been making a fool of himself killing cows, like some stupid village butcher. And now he will be mocked.
This is a world where shame is worse than death. Ajax dies like a samurai on his sword, and the Greek generals gather to dishonor his body. Odysseus talks them out of it. The man was a hero, after all. Besides, it looks well for leaders to be magnanimous.
It is a tough-minded, worldly-wise play that may have had some reference to events Sophocles' audience knew. Sellars' version--with text by Robert Auletta--puts the play in America in the near future, after a Latin-American war that has ended in victory and yet gone badly.
Ajax (Seago) is a shaggy mountain of a man in stained fatigues. We see him first in a transparent blood-filled tank, frantic but mute behind the glass, like a sea animal in an aquarium. Seago, a deaf actor, suggests a powerful man driven beyond speech yet fiercely articulate with his hands.
He embodies the true believer: the warrior who takes war all the way to the wall. This makes him an embarrassment to Menelaus (Ralph Marrero) in his neat Navy braid and briefcase.
Rather like Brando's mad officer in "Apocalypse Now," this war hero isn't acceptable for home consumption. He has to be made an unperson.
Ajax's voice--when it's time to speak--is supplied by one or the other member of the five-man chorus, also in uniform. Sellars has found another clever cognate here--the parallel between the unison chanting of the traditional Greek chorus and a line of soldiers "sounding off."
That clicks. At other times we are in a no-man's land between Homeric Greece and tomorrow's Pentagon (where the play has been set by designer George Tyspin: a hearing room that seems to be stuck out on the loading dock). Sellars and Auletta want us to glory in the ambiguities, the anachronisms of costume and language. But the device can also be read as a cop-out, freeing them from the onerous task of creating either a specific Homeric world or a modern one.
And when chorus leader Ben Halley Jr. comes out in fatigues and a pair of angel's wings, we don't know where we are--Giotto's Italy, perhaps. Sellars probably would reply that Halley is at that moment playing the messenger, and that "messenger" in Greek is "angelos." But I would have preferred to concentrate on the messenger's words at that moment rather than on his feathers.
His message concerns Athena (Aleta Mitchell). Sophocles pictured her as the spokesperson for order. To Mitchell, it seems, she represents political repression. Whatever the intention, actress Mitchell, in a snaky silver dress (the first-class costumes were supplied by Dunya Ramicova), gives her one mean performance.
For all its relevance, for all its updates, Sellars' "Ajax" has sections that are as static and as talky as a traditional pillars-and-togas staging would have been. The characters still must make long speeches, and the flat American sound of their voices loses its amusement value very quickly. (The black voices are less banal, but not resonant, except for Halley, who is sometimes a little too resonant.)