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In Occupied Territories, the new original work from Theater Alliance, every seat is front-row. The theater-in-the-round setting forms a single semicircle around the set at the Anacostia Playhouse, so the play’s horrors of war can be experienced just a little differently from every angle. Director and co-writer Mollye Maxner is banking on us experiencing sensory overload as we watch her soldiers fight their battles. Since these battles are mostly external, not internal, the sensory side of the experience is the only one that really lingers.
We’re in a Vietnam vet’s basement just after his death, which spurs his daughter to desecrate his memory. The daughter is Jude (Nancy Bannon, who co-wrote the show), a recovering addict in her early forties. Jude holds a grudge against her father for his PTSD-addled parenting and many attempts to form religious-themed family bands. She’s also not impressed by his 11-month tour: “I’ve had rashes that lasted longer than that.” Jude’s simmering hatred is so strong that when she uncovers an old cassette addressed to her, she rips up the tape with vigor instead of listening to it. The innards shred and scatter across the set like confetti.
Jude’s motivations are never clear, and that’s a shame, because any drama whose central conflict ends with the hellishness of war is far too easy. We see Collins, her father, in flashback with his platoon in Vietnam, a rowdy bunch of good ol’ boys who have successfully desensitized themselves to the carnage. A meek choir boy, Collins (impressive newcomer Cody Robinson) becomes the object of ridicule as his brothers-in-arms look for ways to blow off steam in the jungle. The soldiers are the play’s sensory triumph: They march in front of and behind the audience, pointing guns at or just above our heads, trading racially tinged jabs, their chants echoing around the tiny stage.
Could Collins (or “Cornbread,” as his platoon calls him) have experienced something horrifying and soul-destroying in Vietnam, maybe immediately after earning the respect of the most hardened men in his mixed-race company? Perhaps his deployment prevented him from being there for Jude’s birth, and the only thing that kept him going in the thick of a hopeless war was thinking of his infant daughter? Perhaps. The play’s brief 80 minutes don’t allow for much in the way of catharsis—Jude’s arc consists of going through her dad’s old things and reading about war horrors in his diary, and it’s pretty deep into the mission before we realize this really is a simple in-and-out operation.
But we can still enjoy some strong dialogue among the military, a rapport that carries a more intensely aggro male energy than theater is accustomed to. Even better are two lingering dance sequences, one a horrific interlude between a deranged soldier and a dead female Vietnamese fighter he manipulates like a ragdoll, the other a more graceful display between two shirtless soldiers as their roughhousing morphs into something acrobatic and haunting. These tidbits, so abstract and challenging, help such battle-worn deja vu go down smoothly.
2020 Shannon Place SE. $20–$35. (202) 241-2539. theateralliance.com.