Jonathan Hopkins in OCCUPATION. Photo by Joe Jung.
BOTTOM LINE: This adventurous play takes current political events and turns them on their head, with strong dialogue keeping it afloat when it gets bogged down by the weight of its own plot.
Our economy continues to tank, demoralized soldiers are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, cultural conservatives feel marginalized, and China has money to burn. Where can it all lead? According to playwright Ken Ferrigni, it leads to Florida being ceded to the PRC in exchange for forgiveness of the U.S.'s debt and, subsequently, a resistance led by evangelical Christians being waged in the Everglades. That's the premise of Occupation, a new play being presented by Project: Theater, that combines humor and tragedy to create a swamp of moral ambiguity.
After an opening "montage" (video clips interspersed with monologues by live actors) that sets the scene and introduces the major characters, the drama proper gets going in two separate locations: the rebel camp where the "Christianists" plot their attacks and torture hostages, and the headquarters of the Chinese proconsul. Of course, in this hyper-global post-superpower world, the identities of key figures on both sides are somewhat more complicated than mere "us" and "them." Deng Zedong (James Chen), China's man in Florida, is not military, but rather an American-educated MBA with a weakness for weed. His assistant Maria (Heather Kelley), is a former college classmate turned ruthless financial opportunist. The resistance fighters have lost their original leader in a drone strike, leaving in charge Florian (Jonathan Hopkins), his screw-up son, and Gare (Eugene Douglas), an army vet looking for a war he can win. Caught in the middle are Gare's wife Kell (Jennifer Logue), who is really tired of watching people get blown up, and Bets (Alexandra Perlwitz), a pregnant teenager who hangs around the militia's camp guzzling wine from a box.
The play's greatest strength, aside from the premise itself, is its language; the characters' dialogue draws us in dramatically to a plot that could collapse under the weight of its own ambition. Perlwitz and Hopkins do a particularly fine job with the two characters that are the least connected to reality. Structurally, there are some problems inherent with moving back and forth between locations so frequently. As the action picks up speed and heads toward an apocalyptic conclusion, its progress is unfortunately slowed by scene changes. However, when I call the ending "apocalyptic," I'm not exaggerating; the play leaves us staring bleakly into a future where neither money nor religion can save us from utter disaster.
Occupation is funny, disturbing, and highly topical, but its concept and structure sometimes slow down the drama. With spirited performances and effective design, it almost justifies its 105-minute running time. Recommended for news junkies, Occupy Wall Streeters, and fans of stoner comedies.
(Occupation plays at TBG Theatre, 312 West 36th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues, through June 23, 2013. Performances are Wednesdays through Fridays at 8PM; Saturdays at 2PM and 8PM; and Sundays at 5PM. Tickets are $18 and are available at smarttix.com or by calling 212.868.4444.)