As any horror movie will tell you: don’t go into the basement. You never know what you’ll find there.
In the case of Occupied Territories, a visceral and stunning new work from Theater Alliance in association with Kicking Pig Productions, a suburban basement contains gut-wrenching insights into the inner life and combat past of a distant and troubled father.
Director-writer Mollye Maxner, along with choreographer Kelly Maxner and co-writer Nancy Bannon, have crafted a swift-moving, highly emotive piece of theater that captures the ways memory shapes us, haunts us, sustains us.
The 80-minute work takes place after the funeral of the father of Jude (Nancy Bannon, effectively brittle) and Helena (Adrienne Nelson, exuding warmth and kindness in her too-brief scenes), a Vietnam veteran named Collins (Cody Robinson) who came back in body while his spirit remained in the jungle thousands of miles away.
The two sisters begin to clean out the basement, their father’s private lair where he went to escape reality and lose himself in memory. We see the father through their eyes—a shut-down, traumatized man who marked their childhoods with unpredictable behavior.
Throughout his mood swings and forays into religious movements from Fundamentalist Christian to Mormon and Buddhism, one thing remained constant—he never spoke about his time in Vietnam. And if you know any Vietnam veterans, this is not unusual at all.
The father’s craziness was particularly hard on Jude, who resented his undependability and remoteness. While Helena tried to be empathetic, Jude turned her anger inward—getting lost in drugs, booze and promiscuity.
She never knew her father and even in death, doesn’t really want to. While getting ready to trash all his belongings, Jude stumbles upon a journal, photographs and other clues to what really happened in Vietnam.
Jude’s discoveries are interspersed with vivid, swirling flashbacks to Vietnam, where Collins is a wide-eyed newbie among battle-weary soldiers trapped on a hillside with supplies and ammo running out. The in-charge Miles (a commanding Elliott Bales) orders a group of men to travel down the hill to meet the supply chopper. Collins, eager to prove his worth, volunteers for the mission.
The scenes in the jungle are so immediate and dangerous you can practically smell the napalm. The unit falls along predictable lines—the green recruit Collins, the trustworthy and seasoned Ace (Desmond Bing) and Lucky (Freddie Bennett), the homesick Professor (Thony Mena) and the loose cannon Ski (a truly scary Stephen Edwards Horst), who is certifiably nuts but the man who has got your back—and their joking and dissing reminds you of every war movie from “Platoon” to “Saving Private Ryan.”
June 11 – July 5
2020 Shannon Place SE
1 hour, 20 minutes with no intermission
Thursdays thru Sundays
Tickets or call 202 241.2539
Yet, there is nothing unsurprising about these flashbacks, which explode with movement, terror and tension, ambushing your emotions. You may not be completely on board with the bratty and selfish Jude, but you find yourself intimately invested in what happens to Collins and the other men. A dance sequence, performed with brawn and sensitivity by Hawk (Thomas Rowell) and Harcourt (Nathan Jan Yaffe) wordlessly expresses the strength and pain these soldiers carry.
Combining storytelling, flashbacks and dance, Occupied Territories sears the heart in its exploration of the cost of war and how it scars not just soldiers but future generations—particularly the women who deal with the aftermath, trying to make sense out of the irrational.
Occupied Territories . Created by Mollye Maxner, Kelly Maxner and Nancy Bannon, in collaboration with the Ensemble . Directed by Mollye Maxner . Featuring Elliott Bales, Nancy Bannon, Freddie Bennett, Desmond Bing, Stephen Horst, Jake MacDevitt, Thony Mena, Adrienne Nelson, Cody Robinson, Thomas Rowell and Nathan Jan Yaffe . Choreography: Kelly Maxner and Mollye Maxner . Scenic Design: Andrew Cohen . Lighting Design: Kyle Gran . Costume Design: Kelsey Hunt . Sound Design/Original Music: Matthew M. Nieson . Properties and Set Dressing: Gadgetgrlz – Deb Crerie and Kay Rzasa . Military Advisor: Elliot Bales . Assistant Director/Dramaturg: John Michael MacDonald . Master Electrician: Will Weremskirchen . Stage Manager: Eric Swartz . Produced by Theater Alliance in partnership with Kicking Pig Productions . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.