If the American Repertory Theatre’s brief (75-minute) and bloody rendition of Sophocles’ Ajax is less than effective, the fault may lie primarily with the limitations of the original, and not Charles Connaghan’s straightforward, modern translation or director Sarah Benson’s decision to depict literal carnage.
A brief refresher, since the bare bones of the story are somewhat occluded in the mostly third-person text: Ajax (a strapping Brent Harris), denied the tribute of the fallen Achilles’ armor, vows revenge on his former comrades, especially the warrior so anointed, Odysseus (Ron Cephas-Jones, excellent if underutilized here).
Feeling spurned, Ajax sets out to slay the lot; however, Athena (Kaaron Briscoe, got up like Condoleezza Rice) — incensed by his boasts during battle that he needs no help from the gods — renders him temporarily insane. Thinking he’s decimating the House of Atreus, Ajax instead tortures and kills the Greeks’ livestock. Emerging from Athena’s curse, he’s mortified by his mistake and sees no honorable option other than to take his own life.
We first see Ajax mid-massacre, positively reveling in the bloodbath, and Benson pulls no punches, opening the nondescript mess hall to a scene of slaughterhouse gore. But it’s not until Ajax’s princess-turned-slave-turned-wife Tecmessa (Linda Powell) appears, begging him to stay his hand, that emotions stronger than horror are engaged. Powell is a gifted actor and a wonder at conveying the desperation of a woman helpless to stem her spouse’s descent into self-destruction. Her Tecmessa is a bundle of fidgits, twitches, spasms — and, when the time comes, the source of the most gut-wrenching wail you’ll wish you’d never heard.
As a kind of trendy addendum to the action onstage, Benson gives us a video wall of thirty “chorus” members orally commenting, Facebook-style, on Ajax’s evolving status. The overlay is not only superfluous but intrusive. Supposedly a cross-section of the Cambridge community, the array is overpopulated by familiar faces (no fewer than three ART stalwarts, including former artistic director Robert Brustein), and their observations tend toward the platitudinous.