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A CurtainUp Review

Why Abulkasem? — The Guide
(l-r): Debargo Sanyal, Francis Benhamou and Bobby Moreno
(Photo: Carol Roseggn)
Invasion! bills itself as a" subversive comedy" that challenges assumptions about race and culture in Western societies, and in many ways this is an apt description. Provocative, daring and often startlingly insightful, Swedish playwright Jonas Hassen Khemiri outdoes himself in this play which combines a narrative told from multiple perspectives with social commentary and exhilarating wordplay.

I'm not so sure, though, about the comedy label. Invasion! is certainly funny in many areas-but, given the prescience of the narrative, it's hard not to feel more chilled than amused at the play's conclusion, and the power of the message conveyed goes far beyond easy laughter. Whether comedy or tragedy, though, Invasion! is undoubtedly one of the more important plays to land on American shores in several years.

Himself of mixed racial heritage (Tunisian and Swedish), Khemiri is no stranger to controversy; his 2004 novel One Eye Red, which won the Boras Tidning award for best literary debut in Sweden, mined similar ground of racial alienation and forced assimilation to that of Invasion!. But in this play (which benefits from an excellent translation by Rachel Willson-Broyles), Khemiri dives even further into the wreckage of racial division in Western society.

The play focuses on the mysterious name "Abulkasem," which starts as the moniker of a mysterious phantom character, a Northwest African pillager. At various points it becomes the name of a Lebanese dancer, the made-up name of a stuttering Indian telemarketer trying to impress a woman at a bar, the made-up name of a famous female Muslim director, and the adopted name of a mild-mannered apple picker from an unnamed country in the Middle East seeking asylum in America. In between the stories told by (or about) each of these people are scenes from a panel discussion about Abulkasem, where experts discuss both the origins and overwhelming dangers of this man whom they believe to be a terrorist, promising only "chaos" to the rest of us. That the experts can't explain what makes him such a threat is only a temporary inconvenience.

The production is well directed by Erica Schmidt and well acted. The four performers — Francis Benhamou, Andrew Guilarte, Bobby Moreno and Debargo Sanyal —demonstrate both emotional commitment and impressive range, particularly Guilarte with his seamless and compelling transformations from dancer to interviewer to apple picker. The actors' constant role switching and shifting identities strengthens the play's central idea: names (and the identities they signify) depend on context, and knowing the agenda of the person using the name is just as important as the name itself.

Ultimately it's this conceit — -that the messenger is as important as the message — which turns the tone of the play from amusing to sobering. At one point the apple picker starts explaining his feelings about his perpetually delayed request for asylum and the impact a series of messages left at the wrong number (from, naturally, the false Abulkasem) has had on his life. He tells his story in Arabic with the help of an interpreter. About midway through the interpreter begins to change the story into a clichçd, stereotypical portrayal of a suicide bomber, and when the apple picker begins to notice a problem, the resulting confusion is only superficially funny. When the interpreter no longer bothers to even pretend to listen to the original words, continuing with her rendering of the terrorist caricature, the audience's laughter has become nervous and strained. Truth has a way of asking questions with uncomfortable answers.

While I don't see Invasion! as a comedy despite its amusing moments, this is in no way a criticism. The play is a startlingly heartfelt and clever indictment of arrogance and militarism, along with a more subtle critique of the Western tendency to judge and form conclusions about those about whom the West knows very little — the "other," whether immigrant, refugee, or anyone else, is easy to stereotype and pigeonhole. It's one of the best social commentaries in dramatic form of the past few years, and you owe it to yourself to see it as soon as you can.

Invasion! by Jonas Hassen Khemiri
Translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles
Director: Erica Schmidt
Cast: Francis Benhamou, Andrew Guilarte, Bobby Moreno, Debargo Sanyal
Set Design: Antje Ellermann
Costume Design: Oana Botez-Ban
Lighting Design: Matthew Richards
Sound Design: Bart Fasbender
Running time: One hour, twenty minutes
The Play Company, walkerspace, 46 Walker Street, (212) 352-3101
From 2/09/11 to 3/12/11; opening 2/21/11
Mon. - Fri. @ 7:30 p.m., Sat. @ 2 and 7:30 p.m.
Tickets: $30 - $40
Reviewed by Dr. Gregory A. Wilson 2/17/11
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