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Absolute Value Erupts Absolutely
From Spring 2015 INSIDE magazine.
written by Marlowe Fairbanks
Jobsite Theater’s daring summer show delves into the dark world of economic power swaps in the swamp when the United States government sells Florida to China to settle the national debt. It’s a comedy.
New York playwright Ken Ferrigni earned his MFA in Acting from the Asolo Conservatory, a highly-reputed theater school on the Florida State University campus at Sarasota. Born in St. Louis, his introduction to theater came in Boy Scouts, when his troop performed skits for the other boys – skits that, in an interview with blogger Adam Szymkowicz, he says “rarely went well.”
Savvy, socially aware and blindingly funny, Ferrigni performed as an actor and sketch comedy writer for 16 years before turning his craft to playwriting. “I was a pretty good actor. Acting was fun. But, in the theater, in a play, it’s about absolute value, the greatest point from zero. There are great actors out there. As a writer, I could give more fun to more people. Why go to a pretty good doctor? You’d want to go to a great doctor, right? So, I could give challenging roles to great actors and the audience wins,” he says.
A relatively new playwright, Ferrigni’s few works have enjoyed runs in New York, Los Angeles, and, this summer, his allegorical swamp-stomping dystopian hypothetical, Occupation, makes its Florida premiere with Jobsite Theater. Set in 2017, Occupation follows a group of insurgents holed up in the Everglades resisting the Chinese Army. The United States government has sold the Sunshine State to America’s biggest creditor to make good on its debts. As anyone from Florida knows, that isn’t going to go over well. And it doesn’t. The play is funny in the way Pulp Fiction is funny; characters are absurdly human in the midst of unbelievable-except-that-it’s-happening violence.
“I wrote this script at the tail end of the recession. Those were dark times,” Ferrigni says. “It really seemed like this play could happen. Then the economy started turning around, and I thought maybe it wasn’t relevant anymore. But, people are interested in the story.” The play’s puppet head spiritual leader, Florian Hale, concerns himself more with managing the insurgency’s YouTube hits than the spiritual fortitude of the rebellion, the South Florida Christian Militia.
“The connections between the play and what’s happening in the world now are crazy. Humor is the only way we can take it in.”
Ultimately an American story, this play suits well to the Everglades, an almost impenetrable wilderness whose three Seminole wars set the historical precedent for a not-that-far-fetched plot. “This play isn’t an exploration of Chinese-American relations. I’m not that smart. Plus, that would be a boring play,” Ferrigni says. “The last thing I want is someone to walk away thinking this is a slam on China, or a slam on the troops. It’s not. It’s an allegory based on the Afghan insurgency, and it works in the Everglades. Florida is like the Galapagos of the United States. It’s where everything happens. There couldn’t be a better place for this play. I wanted to write a giant American story, a play that would be as fun to watch as a movie.”
David Jenkins, who tracked down Ferrigni and his script after hearing about the play’s off-Broadway run, shares Ferrigni’s excitement about the Florida premier. “The play is very subversive. It really begs questions about how the U.S. and other imperial powers act abroad [as colonizers.] Ken has a real gift for dialogue. I know these characters. And, the play is very, very funny. It’s a new work that should catch people by surprise.”
“I hope people like it,” Ferrigni says. “Again, the idea of absolute value. It’s an emotionally acrobatic play for actors. There are a lot of big moments, terrifying moments, dealt with by humor. That’s good for the audience. The women in the play, they’re what is transformative. Their characters were the most important to me. [Political commentator] Dan Carlin says women are double victims of every war. First victimized by the opposition and then victimized by their own side. That’s a war story we don’t get much. Stories of women are so much more interesting. They’re making the most important decisions. Frankly, I’m sick of stories about guys, two guys fighting over a gun. I love these characters. I have an endless empathy for them.”
Ferrigni’s philosophy of maximum impact settles nicely into Jobsite’s history of risk-taking, a rare gift for new playwrights who often struggle to find regional theaters willing to gamble on an unknown talent. “David [Jenkins] is doing something really special in Florida,” says Ferrigni. “Jobsite takes risks, and that’s important. That’s powerful for audiences to be able to see something different, new. I’m excited to see this show before a Florida audience.”
“Ken’s got a great voice. I follow him on social media and he never fails to make me laugh,” says Jenkins. “He strikes me as somebody I’d like to have pints with on Friday evenings. We’re really looking forward to this play.”
INSIDE magazine emailed the governor about the likelihood of selling Florida to the Chinese government. So far,
his office has yet to respond.