China is near: Reds versus rednecks in “Occupation”

Playwright Ken Ferrigni’s outrageous play Occupation appears to possess the hallmarks of Sacred Fools’ productions such as Bill & Joan, Jon Bastian’s Beat Generation play about scrivener William S. Burroughs; Stoneface about comedian Buster Keaton; and the company’s two Sherlock Holmes parodies. Occupation has originality (this is the West Coast premiere – it opened in New York, where New York Magazine wittily described it as “Idiocracy-meets-Red Dawn“). The two-acter’s premise has the requisite outlandish imaginativeness:

In the not-too-distant future an indebted USA sells Florida to the People’s Republic of China. This leads to an Everglades insurgency fought in the swamps, pitting the South Florida Christian Militia against the People’s Liberation America (PLA).

So far so good: This is a pretty hilarious notion. Montages of faux news clips with a Jon Stewart panache appear on the stage’s three flat screen TVs. The Chinese consul’s name, Zedong (Robert Paterno), riffs on Chairman Mao Zedong’s moniker. Redbook aficionados are pitted against Bible-thumpers – one of those Jimmy Swaggart Southern televangelist types, Bay Ray (Bruno Oliver), and his son, Florian (Brandon Bales). Florian and Zedong also cleverly appear in stagecraft-stretching videos shot in-house that are played on the playhouse’s screens live (kudos to video designer Anthony Backman). It seems as if all’s well on the satirical frontlines and we’re off and running to the races.

Alas, while the preposterous premise is far out, Occupation‘s problem is in its execution. Instead of playing the Sunshine Patriots versus socialists saga in the Sunshine State for laughs as a farce, the reds vs. rednecks storyline veers toward tragedy. By taking itself too seriously, as if the credulity-stretching plot was plausible, this dystopian drama loses credibility. At times the acting becomes histrionic. Sacred Fools is a bold theater company, and in productions such as its version of Bertolt Brecht’s Baal, it hasn’t flinched from presenting onstage nudity and/or violence. But Occupation arguably becomes too bloody, while the plot’s harrowing denouement is pregnant with mass extermination of biblical proportions. Meanwhile, director Ben Rock’s staged sex is, for some reason, less graphic: It’s a case of make war, not love.

The space at this theater tucked out of the way off the 101 freeway at Heliotrope is diminutive, but scenic designer DeAnne Millais does yeoman’s (yeowoman’s?) work in conjuring up a set which convincingly evinces three or four different locales: The office where the corrupt, married Zedong makes out with mistress Mei Mei (willowy Rebecca Larsen); the Everglades where the Swamp Foxes led by Gare (K.J. Middlebrooks) are based and launch their sneak attacks on the PLA invaders; and the campsite of the pregnant Bets (Halle Charleton), who comes across like a female counterpart to Deliverance‘s demented hillbillies.     

Unfortunately, by buying into its unbelievable hypothesis the satire retires in Florida and misfires. Well, they can’t all be Louis and Keely Live at the Sahara – the much extended hit that premiered at Sacred Fools and found its way to a larger theatrical venue.

Occupation is performed through May 9 on Thurs., Apr. 23 at 8:00 pm and on Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm at the Sacred Fools Theater, 660 N. Heliotrope Dr., Los Angeles 90004. For more info: (310) 281-8337; www.sacredfools.org/.

Photo: Scene from the play.   |    Sacred Fools Flickr page


CONTRIBUTOR

Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film historian/critic and co-organizer of the 70th Anniversary Commemoration of the Hollywood Blacklist.

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