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Sophocles' wisdom rings true for today's warriors

July 10, 2010

War is an old story, and old stories bear enduring relevance.

Those are the animating ideas behind Theater of War, a New York-based arts group that uses ancient Greek drama to explore how clashes on the battlefield affect warriors and their families.

This week, the touring production will visit Peterson and Schriever Air Force bases to deliver readings by the playwright Sophocles and lead discussions probing themes ranging from battered psyches, suicide and families left to fend for themselves.

The goal: To show military audiences that war’s lingering scars aren’t a modern invention. They’re as old as combat itself.

“What we’re trying to do is create a safe place for people to talk about very difficult things,” said Theater of War founder Bryan Doerries.

Doerries, a student of Latin and Greek who directs the readings, said the troupe is accustomed to dealing with skeptical audiences, some of whom may chafe at the prospect of sitting through Greek tragedy. But with 92 performances under his belt, he’s confident the group has won over Vietnam veterans, young Marines, battle-hardened Navy SEALS and Army infantry grunts fresh from a combat tour.

“We welcome the skeptics,” he said. “In fact, the lower someone’s expectations are, the happier I am.”

Theater of War was launched in 2009, and is nearing the end of a one-year, $3.6-million contract with the Department of Defense. Its rotating cast has included film and television actors Paul Giamatti, Charles S. Dutton and David Strathairn.

Airmen shouldn’t expect a night at the opera. The readings are given by actors seated at a table, without props or costumes, and the atmosphere is anything but stuffy.

“There’s no pretense to what we’re trying to do,” Doerries said. “People can walk in or out. They can go to the bathroom. They can go have a smoke.”

Theater of War will feature readings from two of the best-known works by Sophocles, an Athenian general in the 4th century B.C. whose work explores how war shapes survivors and their relationships. “Ajax” tells the story of a Trojan War hero who is driven to madness by the same habits that made him a legend on the battlefield. “Philoctetes” is about a warrior whose men abandon him on an island because of an injury.

The works were originally performed in 17,000-seat amphitheaters, to audiences dominated by citizen-soldiers. The Athens of their day had been steeped in 80 years of combat, and waged major battles on six separate fronts.

Doerries interprets Sophocles’ works as a “provocation” to military leaders that rings true today — especially when it comes to their responsibilities to the soldiers under their command.

“It comes as no surprise these plays speak directly to the hearts of veterans,” he said.



Theater of War productions are free for military audiences. They are not open to the public.
Two productions are scheduled for Tuesdayat Peterson Air Force Base and two are scheduled Thursday at Schriever Air Force Base.

Call the writer at 636-0366.

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