Wednesday, March 02, 2011

THEATER: Invasion!

A famous tragedy once wondered, "What's in a name?", but it's doubtful that Shakespeare, a master of double-talk and other precise tricks of English, ever thought that question would come so far as it has in Jonas Hassen Khemiri's Invasion!, a brilliant play that uses aggressively overt scenes about the dangers of language to mask the subtler implications of politics -- or, in a clever twist, vice-versa. For the producing Play Company, it is also a culmination of their tireless work to find voices from around the globe: their work here, potently directed by Erica Schmidt and translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles, utilizes the meta-theatrics of Bad Jazz, the narrative distance (and, as a result, closeness) of Enjoy, and the intensity of Rainbow Kiss.

After a surprising opening that pokes fun at the old-school formality of the romantic era (a near-unintelligible scene from Carl Jonas Love Almquist's Signora Luna), Invasion! continues to mask its true intents by following two rough kids, Arvind and Yousef (Debargo Sanyal and Bobby Moreno), casually hanging out at school, and then -- smoothly cutting to a few years later -- at a bar, where a nervous Arvind attempts to pick up the very attractive Lara (Francis Benhamou). A running gag quickly changes into the play's thematic gist, as the name "Abulkasem" (appropriated from the Almquist) is used as a catch-all for the kids (e.g., "Shit, I'm mad Abulkasem, I was up watching movies all night..."), and as Arvind's more "confident" alias. All of this, of course, works in favor of the abrupt tonal shift that comes with the second scene, in which a panel of experts discuss Abulkasem's birth.

Instead of these shifts being off-putting, they're engrossing: given the innocence of Abulkasem's origin, we're as eager as the experts are to find out how this character became -- as we are led to believe -- a dangerous terrorist. That sound, incidentally, is Khemiri's intellectual trap swinging shut: a third scene, which plays in parallel to both the first and second, focuses on Lara's perspective of Arvind's tic-filled flirations, and her subsequent conversations with her own panel of "experts," a bunch of know-everything graduate students, who are presented here as all too easily obsessed over the merest of scraps of information, driven to lie (or agree) in an attempt to posture for intellectual superiority. It becomes more about saying things than about meaning things, which gives Khemiri ample opportunity to aggressively distort his initial scenes and turn more directly into affecting satire. The panel refers to all the previous incarnations of Abulkasem as one and the same -- resolving the differences in sex and location as disguises, pointless as they may be: "And once, when he wakes up in a damp, stained hotel room in Arizona, he goes so far as to cover the original birthmark with makeup and to put the fake one in EXACTLY the same spot!"  And it's here that the trap clamps down a degree further, for are we even sure at this point that Abulkasem is a threat, much less a terrorist?

The play is only seventy-five minutes long, but captures the deeper implications of a play several times that length by jumping so easily between characters and scenes, touching on each just long enough to throw our perceptions out of the window. We first meet A (Andrew Guilarte) as Yousef's uncle, an actual Abulkasem who struggles to make ends meet as an exterminator so that he can dress up and attempt to make it as a drag dancer, Lance. He's a real live version of the American Dream, but his short vignette ends with soldiers taking sharpies to his face, telling him to "Go Home," a far from welcoming treatment. As the host interviewing the panel, he'll slowly betray his own doubts -- particularly as the "experts" begin to pull their facts out of thin air, referring erroneously to slide after slide. Most effective, however, is his appearance as a soon-to-be-deported (and possibly tortured) apple picker: he calls in a translator (Benhamou) to assist him, only to realize that she is literally putting words into his mouth, culminating with a hopeless series of exchanges in which he says nothing, only for her to translate them anyway: "When the video tape was ready, I put on the dynamite belt and left my home."

When words are cheap, when ideas can be made to mean anything, when we can point to empty statistics ("Abulkasem has crossed the Atlantic and we immediately see an increase in the number of rapes") and laugh, then what good is reality? The play ends with a lengthy monologue by Bobby (Moreno), an actor portraying the playwright's younger brother, who stands there, remembering his inspiration for Invasion!, and though his emotions are gripping and real, so too is the great potential for misunderstanding and misrepresentation. If a war on terror can, in fact, be fought, then we must acknowledge that the war's ammunition is verbal, not physical. Invasion!, then, should be the shot heard round the world; open your ears and grab your tickets now.

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