What do you get when you cross Sinophobic Occupy Wall St. with The Beverly Hillbillies and set it in the sunshine state? One hundred minutes of jokes that may or may not make you feel better about the end of our imperium Americanum. Occupation, a new play by Ken Ferrigni, imagines a not-too-distant world where the Chinese decide to cash in their US Treasury bonds. Because the US is broke, it offers to give our Chinese overlords creditors Florida. Did those imperial newcomers pay any attention to our failures in Afghanistan and Iraq? I guess not, because they took the deal! Now the Yellow Peril has to subjugate and civilize the dirty, addicted, and impoverished swamp dwellers in Alligator Alley. Talk about a quagmire!
In addition to the annoying paranoid-populist strain of American culture that the civilized Chinese must subdue, the recalcitrant Americans are also Christian fundamentalists, zealots of the God-told-me-to-skin-you-alive variety. For people living in a swamp, fighting a guerilla insurgency, this is an absolute advantage. If you are willing to destroy the world to maintain an abstract ideal, who can stop you? (Certainly not the Chinese — or giant cockroaches from outer space.) And everyone knows Jesus loves people who suffer: the poor, the ignorant, the hopeless, the shoeless.
One may be tempted to read Occupation as a “what-if” in which the imperial hubris of the Bush years is inflicted on America, and the flag-waving rednecks who were singing “bomb, bomb Iran” in 2008 were transformed into clannish Afghanis in flip flops. That may, in fact, be what the producers of the show intended. We expect good sci-fi, futuristic dystopias to start with today and run the clock forward to an unspecified future where all of our nightmares have come true. But more disturbing conclusions hide beneath the jocular spectacle of rustic clowns waging asymmetrical war against feckless imperial bureaucrats. For example, though it’s not made explicit, racism stalks the periphery of the play. Questions of class and the subjugation of women that results from radical inequality of wealth are implied but not elaborated. Big fish (maybe ‘gators?) swim beneath the surface of Occupation, but you have to squint to see them.
On the other hand, if you’re interested in some good, old-fashioned redneck baiting, Occupation will not disappoint. Jonathan Hopkins, who plays Florian, the messianic leader of the resistance, is perfectly charismatic and craven in equal parts, Christlike in the cynical light of satire; and Alexandra Perlwitz is absolutely brilliant as Bets, the white trash, teenage addict who is carrying the child of a Chinese soldier who raped her. (You may not think an addicted, white trash, teenage rape victim is funny, but let me reassure you, Ms. Perlwitz makes this horrible situation human and perversely inspirational.) Occupation is intended to be, and succeeds at being, a comedy — even if the situation it imagines is thoroughly tragic. The jokes are funny, and the plot chugs along to last scene, twisting and involuting like a giant Burmese python in the Everglades. As an incisive satire on American hubris it gets a B. As an entertaining hour and forty-five minutes of theater, it gets an A.
Through June 23rd at TBG Theatre, 312 W. 36th St.