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PTSD, from Ancient Greece to Modern Day: Don’t miss ‘Ajax’ in Wartburg Theatre this weekend

By Cassidy Skorija ’19

October 12, 2018

It’s Friday night around 7 p.m., and the lobby of the Wartburg Theatre is alive with the sounds of patrons swarming to experience the opening night performance of Carthage Theatre’s “Ajax,” a new translation of Sophocles’ beloved tragedy created by Melody Abbott ’18 and Lawrence Gums ’19. In attendance are a plethora of excited theatregoers, including President John Swallow and his wife, Cameron, and students and faculty of the Classics Department eager to see this new script come to life.

“Ajax” castAudience members entering the theatre are greeted by an intimidating fortress supported by rusted steel beams. The fortress is topped with barbed wire and a foreboding Spartan helmet front and center — a look scenic director Martin McClendon describes as possessing the “ghost of history before us.” Haze hangs in the air, dissipating the low light. Immediately the house is overcome with feelings of despair and exuberant anticipation.

The show begins with illustrated animations reminiscent of a graphic novel, bringing us into a world where the trials of ancient Greece meet the tribulations of the modern world. Soldiers flood the stage amid smoke and lights, decked in Grecian-inspired yet modern combat gear. They all stand in wait for the great warrior Ajax, portrayed by Marissa Noe ’19, to burst through the canvas-covered doorway center stage. “Ajax” 2018

From this first moment, audiences are taken on a heart-wrenching journey of loss and grief for the devastating aftermath of the life of a warrior struggling to cope with mental illness, and the radical effects of her choices on those around her.

Greek theatre, at its roots, stresses the importance of catharsis, the release of deep emotions by audience goers. This traditional outpouring of emotion is an apt descriptor of the performances taking place over the two-hour production. Each character — from Ajax’s grief-stricken wife, Tekmessa (portrayed by Molly Kempfer ’19), to each individual member of the Chorus — experiences a unique journey dealing with the repercussions of their own decisions and the terrors of the Trojan War during which the play is set.

The fusion of ancient and modern is ubiquitous in the play. The translation is updated to include modern colloquialisms. Costumes mix Greco-Roman influences with 21st century pieces. At one pivotal moment toward the end of Act I, an “impromptu” celebration breaks out, featuring popular dance moves.

Where else will you find philosophical epic poetry juxtaposed with hip hop music but in this insightful production?

The familiar nature of elements within “Ajax” tout an important message: There is nothing new about the issues presented by this story. During a talkback following the show, Lawrence Gums points out that, although “Ajax” originated 2,500 years ago, mental health awareness and the lack of support for veterans are issues we continue to face today. 

“We need to start changing our thinking, or this problem isn’t going anywhere,” says Mr. Gums, a veteran himself.

Audience members who scan the QR code located on the single-sheet program discover additional reflections from Gums and Melody Abbott, as well as astute observations from student dramaturg Emma Swain ’20, who points out Ajax’s loved ones’ “lack of understanding leads them to stigmatize her struggles, reducing them to a ‘madness’ and invalidating Ajax’s pain.” Overall, “Ajax” is a tragic and all-too-familiar rendering of PTSD that is equally as potent today as it was in Ancient Greece.

“Ajax” continues this weekend. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday in the Wartburg Theatre. Tickets can be purchased online 24/7 at www.carthage.edu/tickets, or between noon and 5 p.m. Tuesday-Friday through the Box Office. Please contact the Box Office at 262-551-6661 if you have any questions or concerns, and please like us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carthagefinearts for more information about upcoming events and Fine Arts at Carthage.