Crowded Fire’s Invasion!, or Abulkasem on my mind

Sep 09

Invasion

Wiley Naman Strasser wraps up the final chapter of Invasion! as the playwright’s little brother in the Crowded Fire Theater production of Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s play. Below: An apple-picking asylum seeker (George Psarras) tells his story through an interpreter (Olivia Rosaldo Pratt). Photos by Pak Han

The thing to know about Crowded Fire’s Invasion! is that it’s best not to know too much. There’s comedy, mystery, surprises and sinister darkness all lurking about director Evren Odcikin’s sharp, crisply performed production. And if you have no idea what’s really going on or what could possibly happen next, well, that’s all for the better.

Even though the play is only about 80 minutes, it feels substantial – not heavy but not frivolous either. Playwright Jonas Hassen Khemiri wants to explore the power of language and how that power is fueled by ego, fear, racism and the speed at which words enter and exit the lexicon.

The word here is Abulkasem. We first hear it in the context of a play, a sort of Middle Eastern fairy tale. But then Khemiri (translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles), in a moment beautifully and aggressively staged by Odcikin, disrupts the notion of theater and allows us to watch as the word resurfaces in a vulnerable moment that then, for reasons only teenagers understand, must be armored with testosterone. So Abulkasem becomes slang word – an insult, an adjective, a verb, a compliment, an unlikely slice of Arabic hip-hop hipness.

Invasion

Almost like a riff on Schnitzler’s La Ronde, Khemiri’s play takes us into a world where, through linked scenes, the word Abulkasem becomes many different things. Each time it’s used, we get another window into how language can reinforce or reveal prejudice. Khemiri’s focus is on various people of Middle Eastern descent and how Abulkasem can go from something slangy and harmless to a name that invokes the menace of terrorism.

Odcikin’s quartet of actors – George Psarras, Lawrence Radecker, Olivia Rosaldo-Pratt and Wiley Naman Strasser – deftly switch from character to character, handling the laughs (of which there are many) and the drama with astonishing skill. There’s one scene – without giving too much away – involving a potentially shady character (Psarras) and the translator he has been asking for (Rosaldo-Pratt). The dynamics of the scene are fascinating, as what we think is happening turns out to be something quite different. It’s a potent swirl of stereotypes and insidious operating and Abba lyrics.

Produced in the round, Invasion! has that interesting feel of being foreign and familiar, which is to say you can’t just kick back and relax because you never quite know what’s coming next. Alex Friedman’s set is really an art installation in itself, with the entire theater space covered in newspapers and graffiti by artist Ali Dadgar. Spray-painted images of shadowy men in sunglasses (one of whom looks just like Zach Galifanakis) occupy walls with slogans like “Debt to America.”

My only disappointment in Khemiri’s play is that it starts with such a bang and with such energetic fervor, that its descent into monologue-heavy, darkly lit scenes feels more conventional than I wanted it to. There are plenty of surprises in Invasion! but its form turns out not to be one of them.

That’s a minor cavil, though, for such an interesting, engaging production that takes language so very seriously. There’s always a danger that Khemiri will get preachy, but he never does. Are we all Abulkasem? If we don’t think seriously about the words we use and hear – especially the ones that supposedly describe other cultures – then the answer is a definitive yes.

[bonus interview]

I chatted with writer Jonas Hassen Khemiri for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

Crowded Fire Theater’s Invasion! continues through Sept. 29 at the Boxcar Playhouse, 505 Natoma St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$30. Visit www.crowdedfire.org.

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