nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 17, 2011
Invasion!, which is receiving its U.S. premiere from The Play Company at walkerspace, is an exciting work of theatre that I encourage you to check out. Check it out particularly if you're interested in (a) work from other cultures (Invasion! is written by Jonas Hassen Khemiri, whose father is Tunisian and whose mother is Swedish); (b) excellent acting (the four actors who comprise the cast of Invasion!—Francis Benhamou, Andrew Guilarte, Bobby Moreno, and Debargo Sanyal—play seemingly dozens of roles here and slip in and out them dextrously and brilliantly); (c) being challenged about conventional wisdom/attitudes (the play is a searing, though very funny, exploration of how we objectify and demonize the "other," in this case, very specifically, "brown people" who might be from the Middle East); or (d) getting a glimpse at that elusive, mysterious creature known as Abulkasem.
Yes, Abulkasem. If you never heard of him (or her) before, you will know all about him (or her) once you've seen Invasion!
Who is Abulkasem? A hero from some ancient fairy tale, maybe; or a nerdy telemarketer; or a not-so-renowned filmmaker; or somebody's funny Lebanese uncle? Or...just maybe...the master terrorist to end all terrorists? Enemy of East and West, Muslim and Christian and Jew, secular and fundamentalist? Yeah, that guy.
Khemiri's play is hyper-theatrical and all about surprise and shifting perspective, so that's about all you're going to get from me by way of explanation. The thing is, once you start to get to know Abulkasem, you'll want to keep meeting him. And her.
The play is very, very funny. It starts explosively and gets even more explosive as it moves along, picking up a strong political bent that maybe you don't see coming right at the beginning. It was written in 2006, and it is very much a post-9/11, post-Iraqi War/War on Terror play. It holds a broken, funhouse mirror up to the way the world has gotten to be since those events took hold of America and the world. There's a bunch of high school kids who bend language to their will, at the expense of meaning and communication. There's a bunch of grown-ups who do precisely the same thing: a translator who doesn't hear and a passel of security experts who neither see nor understand what's in front of them. Are there consequences to any of this? Ask Abulkasem.
Erica Schmidt has directed Invasion! expertly, at breakneck speed, with intelligence and rigor and care. As already mentioned, the four actors are spectacular and dazzling in their versatility. Benhamou plays a college student who locks herself out of her apartment and the most efficient translator ever. Guilarte plays a flamboyant Lebanese outcast and an Arab immigrant struggling to make a living as an apple picker. Moreno plays a buttoned-up army general and a hyper high school kid. Sanyal plays a Walter Mitty-ish Indian telemarketer and a stern Lebanese father. And they all play more roles than these; and in every case they're spot-on: hilarious, when funny is called for; and incisive, the rest of the time.
The production is skillfully designed by Antje Ellermann(sets), Oana Botez-Ban (costumes), Matthew Richards (lighting), and Bart Fasbender (sound). Everything serves the objectives of the play, to take us on a strange journey and pull us up short when we least expect it. It's a stimulating, challenging, and rewarding ride.