restricted access The Shelf Life of Shock: Alice Tuan’s Ajax (por nobody) in the Flesh
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The Shelf Life of Shock:
Alice Tuan’s Ajax (por nobody) in the Flesh

The value of shock is questionable. The idea of doing something offensive is no longer interesting. I know it’s been said, but TV offers up a vast medley of images and actions; and if you add to broadcast channels and cable what’s available on videotape, just about everything is there to be seen. We are both overstimulated and deadened simultaneously. Not a nice place to be.

— Richard Schechner (in Harding 2000:213)

JESSE grabs ALEXANDER’s balls; an excruciating and silent scream. A Beam of light hails down as JESSE twists off one of ALEXANDER’s balls. JESSE stares at what seems to be a bloodied pomegranate in his hand. ALEXANDER grabs his crotch to stop the spewing, in stunned, tortured pain.

Alice Tuan’s Ajax (por nobody) is one of the great urban legends of playwriting. Tuan wrote it in a nine-day fit of pique after “realizing all my theatre experiments had no place in the market. ‘F! it!’ I thought, on a spring day in 1998: I’m writing a play that no one will ever dare to stage” (Tuan 2012). The “por nobody” of the title indicates a simultaneous act of self-effacement and defiance: this play has been written by nobody and on behalf of nobody. Its “unstageable” reputation is part of its lurid appeal. Ajax features a climactic castration, the insertion of currency and cocktail wieners (“wienettes”) into the vagina of an acrobatically nubile woman, and anal penetration with a gun, for starters. It has received readings, variously staged, at the Flea Theater in New York City in 2001; the Melbourne Fringe, also in 2001; and at the Salvage Vanguard in Austin, Texas, in 2005. Ajax has left a trail of dutifully, even gratefully horrified critics in its path. In a review in the New York Times, D.J.R. Bruckner suggested that Jim Simpson’s “radio play” production of Ajax at The Flea was a “terrible picture of modern hedonism [...]. Ms. Tuan’s vision makes Cotton Mather and his Salem contemporaries look permissive” (2001). Wayne Alan Brenner in the Austin Chronicle compared Ajax to “a malignant tumor on your genitals that forms itself into the shape of a smiley face” (2004).

Ajax is irresistible partly, I think, because it confronts and calls out conflicting tendencies in contemporary theatregoing. We want to be titillated and we want to condemn the manipulations by which we are titillated; we want to be desensitized enough to summon the bravery necessary to withstand the simulation of outrageous violence (“I can take it, I’m [End Page 151] a sophisticated and adventurous connoisseur”), and we want to wag our fingers at the desensitized victims of the culture industry. We want the Artaudian “real” and Brechtian irony about the contingency of the “real.” We want — I should say, I want — to be shocked and to be beyond susceptibility to shock at the same time.

Zack Russell, a young resident director at The Flea, rediscovered the script for Ajax at the bottom of a drawer in the theatre’s office and decided to give the play its first “3-D” staging at SummerWorks 2012 in Toronto, the largest juried theatre festival in Canada. The lower floor of the Theatre Centre was converted into a reasonable facsimile of Tuan’s “white-tiled room/a drain, hoses/workable water/gun squirters/a long, tiled block” (247), at once a bathhouse and an abattoir, surrounded by semitransparent screens that might be shower curtains or the protective plastic around an industrial meat locker. A woman, whom we will later know as Alma, perches on the tiled block, tearing into a pomegranate. The red juice squirts over her hands and her swirling white (Grecian?) frock: she could be an icon of passion cut into porphyry or a demented cannibal in a slasher flick ravening a human heart. Russell’s Ajax begins with a threat and a wink, though the threat is more difficult to decode. We may be confronted with really revolting and barbarous acts; or those revolting and...