Operation Ajax

Just got back from The Butane Group‘s production of Operation Ajax which tells the amazing – and frightening – story of the 1953 CIA overthrow of Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister, who was replaced with The Shah. For some more info you can check out the Wikipedia entry on Operation Ajax. It is absolutely insane. If you ever wanted to understand a little bit about how Iran – and the whole Middle East – came to be where they are today, this is an interesting place to start.

Basically, the British were angry at the eccentric, nationalist and duly-elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh because he wanted to nationalize the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. So they arranged a boycott of Iranian oil, crushing them economically, and then convinced the CIA to help stage a coup that destroyed Mossadegh and put Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi into complete dictatorial power. The Shah’s regime was completely despotic and corrupt which led to his overthrow by the Ayatollah Khomeini and the Hostage Crisis.

That’s a really short version of the story. But it is a riveting story and very educational about the nefarious interference of the U.S. in other countries. It is also riveting because of unbelievable levels of manipulation, deception and intrigue that went into the plot. Thugs were hired by the CIA to pose as Mossadegh supporters and act badly inciting riots in his name in order to discredit him. The web of deception is incredible, the layers upon layers are truly stunning. And of course the entire Operation was masterminded by Kermit Roosevelt, Jr., a senior CIA agent, and grandson of the former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt. So you’ve got all these incredibly wealthy and powerful people – and governments – conspiring to overthrow a regular, duly-elected leader of a sovereign nation. They destroy his life and reputation in order or preserve their wealth and power. Ouch.

Noel Salzman and The Butane Group do a good job of staging this incredibly complicated material. Like Loneliness of Noam Chomsky, this show is academically rigorous and textually dense. It would take a while to even skim the references in the extensive bibliography in the program. But by and large the staging helps explicate the text and reveal the complexity of the plot, while conveying the truly rapacious motivation behind it. The audience really gets a visceral sense of inevitability – there was no way that this could have been stopped. It is, in some ways, nauseating (in the sense of vertiginous).

Particularly in the latter half of the play where there is an extended sequence where they recited a timeline of what seems to be every CIA operation both covert and open from 1953 to the present, all with ridiculous codenames like “Operation Enduring Freedom” or “Operation Obelisk”… it becomes a numbing recitation, a startling litany conveying the extraordinary reach of the U.S. and corporations as they move to protect their interests and global capitalism.

The show is not for everyone, it is very demanding and there are some pretty rigorous, text-heavy parts that require serious attention. But director Noel Salzman had managed to keep things pretty clear and the show keeps moving forward, even during the really hard bits. Salzman’s interpolation of Roosevelt’s gambling addiction (fact? i don’t know) makes an interesting correlation between the motivations behind gambling and nation-building/destroying.

All of the actors acquit themselves nicely; Jay Smith, who plays Kermit Roosevelt and is also one of the Artistic Directors of Butane, has worked with Richard Foreman, ERS, The Talking Band and other stalwarts of the downtown experimental scene so fans of those folks will appreciate this show as well.

Wednesdays through Saturdays
8:15 PM

(between 8th and 9th avenues)
1, 2, 3, A, C, E to 34th Street

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