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Chicago Arts Scene Commentary

for the Week of May 7, 2001

Theater Review:



Sean Graney, artistic director of those boundary-stomping thespians called The Hypocrites, has proven his intellectual agility at eliciting fresh and pungent paradoxes from the most classically absurdist works in the dramatic canon, ranging from Eugene Ionesco to Peter Weiss. He also has managed to kick the sabers and samovars out of more realistic plays, like Anton Chekhov’s "The Cherry Orchard," emphasizing the creakiness of naturalism through one character’s eternally squeaky shoes.

But in his new adaptation and staging of Sophocles’ obscure tragedy, "Ajax," at the Viaduct, Graney sacrifices truth and purpose for a hyper-contrived commentary on the inhuman nature of Greek super-heroes. Harking back to the original oratorial style of Hellenic theater, he directs the actors as if they are vessels spewing the overwrought wrath of the gods. They are as disconnected from their characters as Ajax’s nemesis Odysseus is from his ill-fitting armor. Graney also underscores the origins of the Hypocrites name, which means "actors."

Nevertheless, Graney’s rambling and hyperventilating production – scrubbed with "26 percent more irony" than the original – also pitches audiences too far over the precipice of artifice, losing them altogether. Had a more familiar Greek tragedy – like "Medea" – been selected for such intensely self-aware scrutiny, the theater experience could have been more palpable. Instead Graney (by stressing the earliest of Greek theatrical conventions, including platform shoe blocks) ends up spoofing a dramatic form in a play few people have read and, most likely, have never seen.

Ajax, an anti-hero of the Trojan War, is probably better known today as a famous brand name for scouring cleanser. He fought valiantly but lost his mind when the magical armor of the dead Achilles was given to Odysseus instead of himself. The goddess Athena subsequently sent him on a hallucinatory rampage in which he murdered scores of sheep, believing them to be Agamemnon, Menelaus and Odysseus. When he awakened from his vengeful stupor, he realized his dishonorable deed and fell on his sword.

This isn’t exactly "The Odyssey" – only a flimsy precursor. And Graney ‘s self-conscious and self-mocking version has essentially pushed "Ajax" farther into the ream of insignificance.

All the cast can do is wail and moan and beat their breastplates. John Byrnes comes close to popping a vein as he grimaces his way through the role of the title warrior. Ryan Bollettino in multiple roles (including Odysseus) speaks so feverishly, his lines are incomprehensible. Although she is restricted to the same level of dramatic insincerity, Jennifer Grace endows Athena, Ajax’s wife and Agamemnon with a degree of passion. And Mechelle Moe, who hilariously portrays "Mythology" author Edith Hamilton as a proper but violence-salivating narrator, cannot overcome her role’s contrived limitations.

Apart from a brilliant chorus of mustachioed Greek fisherman, this production – performed at breakneck speed but still feeling interminable at 80 minutes – doesn’t make any pressing statements on the ancient tragedians (whose plays, by the way, are not exactly flooding contemporary theaters).

"Ajax" runs through June 3 at The Viaduct, 3111 N. Western Ave. Tickets: $12-$15. Call 312-409-5578.

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