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Theatre in Review: Invasion! (The Play Company at Walkerspace)

Andrew Guilarte. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

When you're in the hands of totally confident, committed theatre artists -- well, there's nothing like it. Invasion! begins with a stunning coup de théâtre -- on pain of death, I wouldn't reveal the details -- that, at the performance I attended, left the audience thoroughly hoodwinked. After that, we were putty in the hands of a nimble, exceptionally gifted company of four as they enact Jonas Hassen Khemiri's shaggy-dog story -- one of the very few plays to find genuine laughter in the ugly details of the age of terrorism.

We begin with a stiff, living-waxworks performance of Signora Luna, an 1835 historical epic by the Swedish playwright Carl Jonas Love Almqvist. (The actors in this scene are only marginally livelier than the automatons in Disney's Hall of Presidents.) One of the characters mentioned in Almqvuist's text is Abul Kasem -- and don't you forget it. In Invasion!, the name goes viral, passing through many levels of New York's immigrant community even as it becomes the nom de guerre for the fantasy terrorist who embodies the U.S. government's worst nightmares.

First, a group of bored teenagers pick up the name, amusingly inserting itr into their collective vocabulary as a noun, a verb, and adjectives both pejorative and affirmative. ("That's so Abul Kasem!") One of them recalls it as the name of an eccentric uncle, devoted to flashy clothes and nightclubs. Later, another of them will use it as an alias in a desperate attempt at a bar pickup. Finally, through a twist of fate, it is affixed to an illegal immigrant detained in a Queens holding pen. Meanwhile, a panel of "experts" keep appearing, offering footnoted testimony that attributes virtually every evil in the modern world to Abul Kasem -- as if he really exists.

The script has plenty of fun with each of these situations, while quietly building up a paranoid scenario that seems all too distressingly familiar. Arvind, a horny, shy, Indian youth, eyes a woman in a bar, extolling her virtues: "This is top shelf, classy style, you know one of those girls who studies university and has parents with BMWs and lives condo and buys unlimited subway pass." (We are given he-said/she-said versions of Arvin's pickup story. In his account, Lara, the woman, is wowed by his job in telemarketing. Lara's version involves her giving him a false telephone number.) Meanwhile, the experts spin ever more feverish accounts of Abul Kasem's globe-trotting itinerary. "In Dakar, he sneaks onto a ship that transports Freon freezers and Happy Meal toys to South America," we are informed. There, he becomes a monkey smuggler; thanks to the vigilance of US intelligence we learn that one of his charges even ends up on the set of Friends.

Unforseen circumstances lead us to the Apple Picker, an Arab with a poor command of English, who keeps getting phone messages from Abul Kasem (in reality Arvind, who keeps dialing the wrong number Lara gave him), It's his bad luck, because he ends up being seen as part of the great Abul Kasem conspiracy. In the play's most acridly funny sequence, he addresses us directly, speaking gently about the role of music in his life, while a translator twists his words into statements like "I come from a relatively terroristic background. Saber, my youngest brother, and I used to play suicide bombers when were little." As he quotes bits of ABBA songs, they are translated as "My goal -- to murder as many defenseless Jews as possible."

Clearly, thinks Khemiri, a Swede of Tunisian ancestry, we have nothing to fear more than fear itself, a point that becomes increasingly tough to argue with as Abul Kasem mania seems to take over the world. The author's cleverness never slackens, right up to the finale when we are introduced to his own younger brother, who has an Abul Kasem story that twists the action in another, wholly unexpected direction.

It's hard not to think of the script of Invasion! as a work of collaboration. Khemiri's lethally amusing tale is rendered in a version by Rachel Willson-Broyles that is so idiomatic that one suspects she has taken a fair number of liberties with the original. (Surely it was she who added the Kardashians to a list of ills caused by Abul Kasem, which otherwise takes in global warming and the collapsing economy.) It's also hard to imagine what Invasion! would be like without Erica Schmidt's slam-bang production and the gifted cast, all of whom appear in multiple roles. Andrew Guilarte scores as a real-life Abul Kasem who is nobody's idea of a terrorist, since he loves disco and prefers to be known as Lance -- and as the Apple Picker, whose innocence is protection against the US security apparatus in overdrive. Debargo Sanyal is a compact package of adolescent anxieties as Arvind, whose pickup technique is in desperate need of revision. Bobby Moreno tackles everything from an adolescent gang member to a middle-aged female academic. Francis Benhamou is fine as the girl of Arvind's dreams and as that take-no-prisoners translator.

The action unfolds on Antje Ellerman's set, which keeps acquiring new depths with each twist in the tale. Oana Botez Ban's costumes range from hip-hop fashions to the kind of look you might call CNN casual. Bart Fasbender's sound design paces the action with a variety of effects and musical selections. My one reservation has to do with Matthew Richards' lighting design; whether playing a strip of LEDs on the upstage wall or creating backlight effects with floor units, the light is sometimes aimed a little too directly at the eyes of the audience. The play is confrontational enough without resorting to such tactics.

But 99% of the time, Invasion! hits its targets wittily and remorselessly, placing us inside the crazy, self-justifying logic that sees terror in every unfamiliar face. Just as the Mint Theatre digs up obscurities from a century ago, The Play Company finds relatively unknown contemporary international playwrights with something to say. This is one of their best finds yet.--David Barbour

(24 February 2011)

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