Theater Review: Occupation

A terrific premise, the cast is strong, but the script is cloying.

click to enlarge WELL-OCCUPIED: Nathan Jokela and Katie Castonguay in Occupation. - CRAWFORD LONG
WELL-OCCUPIED: Nathan Jokela and Katie Castonguay in Occupation.

Runs through Aug. 2 at the Shimberg Playhouse of the Straz Center, 1010 N. MacInnes Place, Tampa. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Thurs.-Sat., 4 p.m. Sun. $28.

Why is Ken Ferrigni’s Occupation, currently showing at Jobsite Theater, so unpleasant to experience? After all, it has a terrific premise: that Florida has been sold to the Chinese by a bankrupt U.S., and that an American insurgency, based in the Everglades, is trying to recapture our fair peninsula. Th e cast is strong, the design is attractive, the direction is skillful — and still this thing grates and annoys for most of its two acts. I think I know the reasons:

Number one, the play asks us to care about a war in which both sides are repugnant. As we find out near the start (after too much exposition, some of it supposedly from NPR), the spiritual head of the insurgency is Florian Hale and the military leadership belongs to Gare Cartwright.

Well, Cartwright, played with panache by Nathan Jokela, is heroic enough to earn our support; but Hale, portrayed by Carlos D. Garcia, is a weasly, whiny religious fanatic who seems to be responsible for atrocities and massacres, and who makes everything he touches — the insurgency, for instance — turn instantly to slime. Meanwhile, the only character on the Chinese side to whom we’re introduced is proconsul Deng Zedong, played crisply by J. Elijah Cho, but all he really cares about is sex, marijuana and not losing his job. We have no reason to want the repulsive Hale to succeed, and there’s nothing at all about Deng to make us wish him a triumph, so we’re alienated from the main dramatic question of the play almost from the beginning.

Number two, five of the six characters on stage (the exception being Cartwright) are distinctly unsympathetic. I’ve already mentioned Hale and Deng; but Cartwright’s wife, Kell (played by Katie Castonguay), is abrasive and melodramatic, and Deng’s secretary, Maria “Mei Mei” Burruss, impersonated by Emily Belvo, is an American turncoat whose motives are all selfish and whose default mode is complaining. Then there’s Bets, a sort of hillbilly woman who’s been raped by three Chinese soldiers and who you’d think would have our good wishes; but as played by Marlene Paralta, she’s coarse, vulgar, and self-centered almost to the point of solipsism. How can we sympathize with a character who tells us she’s prepared to kill her newborn baby if it’s born with Chinese features?

I suppose one could argue that playwright Ferrigni is showing us a world in which there are no admirable people; but in that case, we need something like Oscar Wilde’s wit to give us a reason to stay attentive. Ferrigni’s a capable writer, but no, he’s not (yet) a genius. So what we’re left with is a group of repulsive figures whom we’re asked to tolerate for 90 loud minutes. Ninety seconds would be sufficient.

Number three, the key concepts of the premise — an America in debt, a China in search of new territories for its burgeoning population — are never really addressed. It’s as if Ferrigni doesn’t care to investigate his own ideas. And if the playwright’s not going to work out the implications of his own argument, why should we?

So anyway: Chris Holcom’s direction is sharp, Kaylin Gess’s set, featuring four revolving towers with placards, is clever, and as usual, Katrina Stevenson’s costumes are impeccable. But this is not an enjoyable event. I was glad when it ended.  

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