Wednesday, October 25, 2017

91 (2017-2018): Review: OCCUPIED TERRITORIES (seen October 20, 2017)

“Stress Test”

Two related, intertwined, competing narratives vie for dominance in Nancy Bannon and Mollye Maxner’s physically ambitious but otherwise familiar Occupied Territories, now in Theater B at 59E59 Theaters. 

Produced by Theater Alliance of Washington, D.C., which is where it premiered in 2015, and Available Potential Enterprises, the 90-minute work ties horrific memories of the Vietnam War together with a present-day domestic crisis in the life of a mid-40s woman, Jude (co-author Bannon). Its unusual structure is attributable to its having been developed in workshops with the playwrights (one of whom also directed) and a team of actors, at least two of them in the current production.
Nancy Bonner, Kelley Rae O'Donnell. Photo: Colin Hovde.
Theater B has been reconfigured by designer Andrew Cohen so that the audience, mostly in a single row, but with a few seats in a second, surrounds a U-shaped thrust. At the upstage end is a platform and stairs suggesting the cluttered basement of Jude’s father’s home, while the larger, downstage area, is bare. Fronds of jungle foliage, not noticeable at first, hang overhead.
Kelley Rae O'Donnell, Ciela Elliott. Photo: Colin Hovde.
Jude, her younger sister, Helena (Kelley Rae O’Donnell), and Jude’s daughter, Alex (11-year-old Ciela Elliott in a role written for a 15-year-old boy), have gathered in their dad’s basement after his funeral. Jude, broke, stressed, and given to profanity, is there only because she’s been allowed a two-day furlough from the rehab facility at which she’s been recovering from an addiction to painkillers.
Nancy Bannon. Photo: Colin Hovde.
Before long we learn of Jude’s hostility toward her late father, who suffered from PTSD, screamed at his kids, and honored his military camaraderie over his familial closeness. Because he never spoke about his combat experiences, Jude dismisses the idea he might have suffered at all, a character weakness in her that seems totally fabricated to make a dramatic contrast with the sympathetic Helena. (A decision of Helena’s regarding a child she’s adopting is similarly contrived.)

Jude also wishes that Helena, understandably reluctant, would allow Alex, disappointed in her mom, to live with her again once she demonstrates she’s no longer a danger to herself.
Scott Thomas. Photo: Colin Hovde.
As Jude begins looking through her dad’s mementos she comes across materials documenting his service in Vietnam, 45 years earlier, and the scene shifts to the downstage area where we watch her dad, Collins (Cody Robinson, from the original staging), join his platoon on a godforsaken jungle hill.

Soon enough, the innocent, patriotic newbie, who will learn of Jude’s birth during the action, is getting hazed by some of the jaded men, notably by Cpl. Makowski, a cynical, crude, but nonetheless brave soldier nicknamed “Ski” (Scott Thomas).
Diego Aguirre, Cody Robinson. Photo: Colin Hovde.
The action goes back and forth between the army and basement scenes as the emotions in both places intensify. Collins witnesses horrific scenes, including the killing of a Vietnamese woman, followed by the mockery and necrophilic abuse of her corpse. Meanwhile, Collins's daughter, Jude, struggles not to succumb to her addiction.
Dante Bonner, Scott Thomas. Photo: Colin Hovde.
One of the more unusual scenes, occurring as Jude projects slides she’s discovered, is a surrealistically balletic routine—helped greatly by sound designer Matthew M. Nielson and lighting designer Rob Siler—pairing two soldiers, Hawk (Nile Harris) and Hardcore (Nate Yaffe), in an acrobatic pas de deux in which they playfully wrestle, often in slow motion. It’s well enough done but its intention—bombed bodies being thrown in the air? macho pleasure in the joy of combat?—isn’t very clear.  

Sincere and heartfelt as Occupied Territories is in its attempt to convey the legacy of war, whose effects live on in its participants and their progeny, neither its domestic nor wartime scenes are particularly original or believable on a more than soap opera level.
Nile Harris. Photo: Colin Hovde.
The soldiers are stereotypes, their dialogue is hackneyed (like a cliched scene where they fantasize about food), and, for all their superficial naturalism, the army scenes are played so close to the audience (I kept having to move my feet to prevent someone tripping over them) that they reek of artificiality. The play’s resolution, comforting as it may be, feels more forced than organic.

All the performances are professionally sharp but the most distinctive one belongs to the silent, uncredited actor (one of the soldiers) portraying the dead woman, who gets tossed about like a sack of beans while remaining perfectly limp, an extremely difficult thing to do. It will probably occupy a place in my memory long after I’ve forgotten everything else in Occupied Territories.

Note: this review originally speculated that the dead Vietnamese woman was played by Ms. O'Donnell. 


59E59 Theaters/Theater B
59 East 59th St., NYC
Through November 5