Ken Ferrigni's new dystopian thriller has fun with a topic that is deadly serious.
As Occupation opens, the audience learns via an impressively produced collection of news clips that a deeply-in-debt United States has sold Florida to China for five trillion dollars and the forgiveness of its monetary obligations. We also learn that all "indigenous" Floridians must move from the state within 18 months of the sale to make room for Chinese pilgrims or forfeit their citizenship. Predictably a lot of them don't seem too fond of the arrangement.
Eugene Douglas plays Gare Cartwright, military leader of the rebel insurgency: The South Florida Christian Militia. The SFCM was founded by former car salesman and preacher and recent martyr-for-the-cause Bay Ray Hale and is now led, spiritually, by his physically disabled son Florian (a heartbreakingly adolescent cleric played by Jonathan Hopkins). Also hanging out around the swampy rebel camp are Cartwright's wife Kell (Jennifer Logue) and the pregnant teenage hick Bets (Alexandra Perlwitz). By and large, the actors do well bringing depth to a story begging to be dismissed as farfetched, although it can be disarming to witness New York actors with perfect teeth and enunciation playing America's poorest of the poor.
As Occupation's main plot unfolds in the militia's tent city, another drama is taking place in the office of the young, newly appointed Pro-Consul of the An Lushan province (Florida). Though the two stories do eventually converge, for most of the play this two-person tale feels unnecessary and unbelievable. The Pro-Consul (played by James Chen) is a playboy so obsessed with weed and sex with his American-born attaché (Heather Kelley), that he's rarely able to make it out of his bathrobe for a day at the office. And the idea that this deadbeat has managed to climb the corporate ladder and find himself governing the lives of thousands of Chinese and American citizens is, like the play as a whole, at once too silly and too serious.
At times, though, the production can be a lot of fun, with lighting and sound design (by Adam Carpenter and Nick Borisjuk) coming together to create an action-flick-for-the-stage feel. And playwright Ken Ferrigni can be dead funny, especially when writing for the disembodied voice of Bible-thumping redneck-in-the-sky Bay Ray ("That's because you're acting like a pussy. Christ doesn't talk to pussies.") However, the line this story treads between violent-comic absurdism and tragic realities is its biggest problem.
The subject matter that Ferrigni says he's drawing from is incredibly serious and incredibly sad. According to CNN.com, at least 8,124 U.S. and Coalition soldiers have died over the course of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, with civilian deaths in those countries in the hundreds of thousands — this is not a laughing matter. Certainly, humorous commentary has its place, but when it comes to a matter this grave, satire requires a light hand and the trust of the audience. Ferrigni doesn't yet have either.