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A CurtainUp Review
Occupied Territories

He told me, "Jude, this family stuff is not real love. Real love is between soldiers fighting for each other's lives. That's love. Not this." — Jude
Every family has problems. Stop making ours into a monster. We just buried him. — Helena
Diego Aguirre and Cody Robinson (Photo by Colin Hovde)
Hard-hitting and unflinching, Occupied Territories, erases thousands of miles and a half-century separating an American basement from the jungles of Vietnam. In a harrowing 90-minute new play at 59E59 Theaters, the Collins family buries their father, a Vietnam veteran and while rummaging through his memorabilia, one sister unravels the wartime anguish that traumatized him and his family. Collins was one of thousands of returning soldiers suffering from PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) who survived physically but were psychologically caught in a nightmare of emotional and mental wounds lasting for years.

The secret of this play's success is less in the book than the staging. Written by Nancy Banner (who plays Jude) and Mollye Maxner (director), the stage is separated in two parts, a raised platform basement filled with boxes of records, photographs, tapes, a journal and a camera hanging on the wall. A staircase leads upstairs. The larger part of the stage is dark and empty, with one or two rows of seats for the audience. Here, the war sequences unfold under fragments of jungle greenery hanging from the rafters and wary soldiers thrusting M14s uncomfortably close to audience faces.

The play opens in silence in the basement where sisters, Jude and Helena, home from their father's funeral, are grieving in their own ways and glancing through his memorabilia. This was where their father always secluded himself with his memories.

Helena (Kelley Rae O'Donnell), married and responsible, had spent her life trying to empathize with their father's unpredictable moods, remoteness and bursts of violence. She reminds her older sister, "He had PTSD. It was a war. It wasn't his fault."

Jude, always the wild child, had spent her angry life suffering from her father's torment and fiercely rebelling with drug and alcohol abuse. "What, it was perfectly acceptable for him to push us out the door at midnight for those f****** safety drills? Hiding out down here for weeks on end?" A single mother, Jude has one child, 11-year-old Alex (Ciela Elliott), quiet and fearful of her mother's irresponsibility. She currently lives with Helena until her mother finishes rehab.

Jude decides to go through more of her father's things before getting rid of them. She wants to see what he kept here because, like many vets, he never spoke about his experiences in Vietnam. Helena gathers up and hides all their father's medications so her sister would not be tempted and she decides to take Alex home. When Jude's curiosity is piqued by a photograph of two soldiers, the action suddenly switches to the dark stage and a war across the world.

Seven Army fighters storm in from the dark, fanning out and positioning themselves in battle stations. Eyes staring into the black jungle, they remain alert, moving edgily through unfriendly country.

Collins is the newest recruit, 18-years-old and in Vietnam only ten days before he was sent to join a squad of combat-weary soldiers trapped on a hill, waiting for a chopper bringing sorely needed food and ammo. The squad is led by war-weathered Ace (Donte Bonner), who is days from discharge. Committed to his men, Ade tries to keep tempers even in the menacing jungle where smothering heat and sudden danger is imminent.

Flashbacks switch from the war to the basement where Jude continues rummaging. At one point she finds a carousel of slides and sees photos her father took and reads his horrific accounts of the war. Jude finds some pills and is sorely tempted, but puts them aside.

Collins tries to prove his worth with Lucky (Diego Abuirre) who becomes a buddy. He tells Lucky that his wife is expecting a baby and whatever the gender, Collins says they plan to name the child, "Jude." Another soldier is Thony Mena (Alvarez) who wants the normalcy of home and decent books. Ski (Scott Thomas) is a hot-head on the frenzied rim of a breakdown although the others agrees he is the one you want on your side. "Hardcore" Harcourt (Nate Yaffe), silent since his buddy died two weeks earlier, at one point joins Hawk (Nile Harris) in a silent macho ballet. The dance illuminates the pasticcio of fear, fury, and friendship between soldiers as they clasp, grapple and toss each other almost into the audience in a unique tangle of grace. ( Occupied Territories won the Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Choreography by Kelly Maxner).

Like a hallucination, the soldiers eventually breach the basement stage surrounding Jude in the midst of her father's paraphernalia. Later, a notable moment takes Jude out of the basement and into the jungle, looking at twisted bodies. One surviving soldier stands in the center. As they stare at each other, the years and countries merge and the play turns toward its finale. There is a hint of Jude's future as she returns to the basement and then joins her family.

The play's direction by co-writer Mollye Maxner is sharp and sensitive, and co-writer Banner's portrayal of the irresponsible Jude is unforgiving and compelling. If the start of the play is sketchy it puts across a point with clarity and force. Production designer Brian Macdivitt's values are excellent at creating tension and building emotion. Mathew M. Nielson's explosive bursts of gunfire, sounds of silence, suspicious animal sounds, droning insects mingle with whispering instructions. Bursts from M14s and DP28s screaming through Andrew Cohen's jungle set, accentuate by Rob Siler's blazing light effects.

The impact of the horrors of war is visceral in this small theater with limited rows of seating. Illustrated with intense emotions through dance and flashbacks, it is lamentable how war and its consequences grip and imprison everyone —, soldiers, family members and societies in its occupied territories.

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Occupied Territories
Book: Nancy Bannon and Mollye Maxner
Director: Mollye Maxner
Cast: Diego Aguirre, Nancy Bannon, Donte Bonner, Ciela Elliott, Nile Harris, Thony Mena, Kelley Rae O'Donnell, Cody Robinson, Scott Thomas, Nathan Jan Yaffe
Production Design: Brian MacDevitt
Set Design: Andrew R. Cohen
Costume Design: Kelsey Hunt
Lighting Design: Rob Siler
Sound Design and Original Music: Mathew M. Nielsen
Production Stage Manager: Kaelyn Kreicbergs
Running Time: 90 minutes. No intermission
Theatre: 59E59 Theaters, Theater B (59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison Avenues)
Tickets: Start at $35, $24.50 for 59E59 Members). $20 discounted tickets are available to Veterans, Retired, and Active Military.
Performances: Wed.,Thurs. at. 7:15pm. Fri., Sat. at 2:15pm, 8:15pm. Sun. at 7pm. Sat., Sun. matinees at 2:15pm.
Previews: 010/20/17. Opens: 10/25/17. Closes: 11/5/17
Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors based on performance 10/21/17

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