Brilliant Mind artfully blends live, digital, interactive

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Denmo Ibrahim as Dina and Ramiz Monsef as Yusef in Marin Theatre Company and Storykrapht’s live and interactive premiere of Brilliant Mind by Denmo Ibrahim. Below: Dina and Yusef deal with the aftermath of their father’s death.

Samir El Musri texted me more than two dozen times the other night while I was watching an online play. Rather than tell Samir to stop bothering me while I was otherwise engaged, I eagerly awaited each short message or photograph.

Samir, you see, is not a real person. He’s a character in Denmo Ibrahim’s world-premiere show Brilliant Mind, a presentation from Marin Theatre Company and Storykrapht that revels in the digital realm rather than treats it like a stopgap until theaters reopen.

Before the 80-minute show begins, we’re invited to explore a virtual 3-D replica of Samir’s apartment in which there are a number of items that will trigger additional information. We’re also invited to allow Samir to text us and to put his name in our address book so the texts actually come from Samir (and heightens the reality of the experience).

Unlike many digital plays, Brilliant Mind begins at a proscribed time because, as it turns out, there’s a live aspect in addition to the interactivity, and that live aspect involves Samir himself (as played by Kal Naga aka Khaled Abol Naga, who has died this very day and exists in a sort of limbo while he observes his grown children, Yusef (Ramiz Monsef) and Dina (Ibrahim) sort through what he has left behind – physically, culturally, emotionally.

Dramatically speaking, this live aspect combined with previously filmed segments involving Ysef and Dina, could be gimmicky at best and technologically glitchy at worst. Happily, Ibrahim, working with director Kate Bergstrom and digital/interactive designer Marti Wigder Grimminck, folds this idea meaningfully into the narrative, making Samir an observer – as we are – of the unfolding action and giving him a touch of magic realism in that he is able to use his phone to text us (his fellow observers) and make his presence felt in the world his children occupy.

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Yet another interactive component allows viewers to choose the play’s path at certain moments, which frankly made me a little anxious because of I have FOMO and am always certain I choose the less interesting option (and if you don’t choose rather quickly, the system chooses for you, so there’s that).

All the technology aside, the story of Brilliant Mind is intriguing in its own right as it explores the lives of Yusef and Dina, first-generation Arab-Americans, and how their lives have been (are being) affected by the lives of their immigrant parents and how a family forms its identity through cultural roots, geography, secrets and the politics of history (and the history of politics).

Ibrahim has long been a Bay Area actor of note, someone to rely on for depth, intelligence and emotional realism on stage. She and Monsef are marvelous together as their scenes crackle with the fraught chemistry of siblings who want to do better by one another but mostly fail to rise to that challenge. This period following their father’s death is sort of an emotional crucible, which is, of course, an excellent time to check with them from a dramatic point of view.

The richness of the characters and the bells and whistles of the presentation can’t conceal certain lags in the script (which would probably be more effective on stage than on screen) and a reliance on clichés (especially for Samir), but it’s all so well acted and produced that there’s still a great deal to enjoy, savor and ponder.

Denmo Ibrahim’s Brilliant Mind continues performances through June 13. Tickets are $30. Call 415-388-5208 or visit

Berkeley Rep’s Good Book is a revelation

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The cast of The Good Book at Berkeley Repertory Theatre includes (foreground) Lance Gardner; (background, from left) Annette O’Toole, Wayne Wilcox, Elijah Alexander, Shannon Tyo and Denmo Ibrahim. Below: Ibrahim is surrounded by (from left) Alexander, Gardner, Wilcox and Tyo. Photos courtesy of Alessandra Mello/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Let’s just admit it. The Bible is a clusterf**k. How in the world did such a literary hodgepodge, political football, myth collection become one of the most influential – if not the most influential book – ever created? That is the mammoth question playwrights Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare ask in their fascinating play The Good Book now at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Their focus here really isn’t Christianity or even religion in the larger sense but rather how the Bible evolved over centuries into what we know it to be today: a confusing, contradictory, occasionally beautiful piñata poked at by people around the globe who want everything from solace to spiritual connection to straight up power.

How Peterson, Berkeley Rep’s associate director, and O’Hare (a Tony-winning actor best known lately for his TV work on “American Horror Story” and “This Is Us”) go about answering the question of what the Bible really is takes nearly three hours and a play that careens all through time and space in a most entertaining manner. They gather their seven remarkable actors amid the detritus of Rachel Hauck’s set – mostly overturned tables and chairs – and begin to create order. Then they begin what feels like a Bible 101 class, with Annette O’Toole taking the lead, as they all ponder the questions: what is the Bible (what is it really apart from all the baggage piled on top of it) and where the hell did it really come from?

The college seminar idea, as it turns out, isn’t far off. As the play comes into focus, O’Toole emerges as Miriam Lewis, a renowned Bible scholar and professor who, it should be noted, does not believe in God. The free-form nature of the play allows us to be in Miriam’s classroom and to bounce back centuries as we experience great moments in the creation of the Bible. Well, maybe not so great. Just moments. Like when a group of travelers, who have done their best to record the stories of their people and Jesus and Jesus’ wife on various scrolls, discover that a member of their band has discarded some of the most important scrolls so that he might collect figs to nourish them on their journey. B’bye, Jesus’ wife.

The other thread of the story involves a boy named Connor (Keith Nobbs), who is being raised Catholic and has become a “Biblehead,” someone obsessed with the Bible. He has an old-fashioned cassette recorder and, in addition to capturing the details of his life, he pretends to interview important figures from the Bible and the Bible’s history (King James even shows up). All of that biblical fascination adds layers of complication as he grows up and realizes he’s gay. He then struggles to hide that fact from his parents and his God until he rejects the church (even if temporarily) to figure out how to discover a loving deity instead of a hateful one.

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The motor at the heart of the play is O’Toole as Miriam. She’s smart, sarcastic and unafraid to put you in your place because she knows more than you do. In one of the play’s more contrived constructs, Miriam is the subject of a New Yorker article about the “new atheists,” and the reporter (Shannon Tyo) crafts a profile that displeases the professor mightily. The article also causes problems professionally (her students, especially the Christian students, find her judgmental) and personally with Miriam’s longtime companion (Elijah Alexander), an archeologist spending more and more time on his far-away digs.

Weaving in and out of Miriam’s and Connor’s stories, the play allows for an overview of the Bible (via Miriam) and its role in persecution and personal pain (via Connor). What’s really interesting, though, is the sense that most of us know so little about the Bible other than the parts that are dragged out all the time (say hey, Leviticus!) or so ingrained in our consciousness (Ecclesiastes!) that it’s hard to imagine Western culture without them. Though the play isn’t interested in Bible bashing per se, it does seem to relish tossing off facts like such and such an apostle never existed! Such and such an apostle never actually knew Jesus! Except for Paul’s letters, the Bible is not historical! All these little nuggets indicate that the Bible is like a Christian Wikipedia, altered and edited by just about anyone and everyone, not all of whom had the best or most spiritual intentions.

The Good Book, which also features sharp performances by Denmo Ibrahim, Lance Gardner and Wayne Wilcox, can feel scattershot, but that’s probably by design. Except for a trite TV talk show moment, it all works and proves that from disparate parts, you can assemble something that, even though it seems unlikely, coalesces in a deeply meaningful, thought-provoking way.

Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson’s The Good Book continues through June 9 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Peet’s Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $30-$97 (subject to change). Call 510-64702949 or visit

Humanity shines in ACT’s Splendid Suns

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Mariam (Kate Rigg, left) and Laila (Nadine Malouf, center) and Zalmai (Neel Noronha) say goodbye to Aziza (Nikita Tewani) in the world-premiere theatrical adaptation of Khaled Hosseini’s novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns, at ACT’s Geary Theater. Below: Furious Rasheed (Haysam Kadri) yells at Laila (Malouf, left) and Mariam (Rigg). Photos by Kevin Berne

Let’s be honest: sitting in a beautiful theater watching a well-crafted play is an absolute privilege, so where better to challenge our very notions of privilege and confront the reality that much of the world’s population is having a very different experience than those of us sitting in the velvet seats? With a play like A Thousand Splendid Suns, the world-premiere adaptation of Khaled Hosseini’s 2007 novel now at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater, there are moments when the gilded glory of the Geary melts away and we are totally invested in the story of two women and their family enduring the hardships of life under Taliban rule in Kabul, Afghanistan.

That kind of transference, putting ourselves into the lives of those whose experience is so far from our own, has always been invaluable but suddenly seems like an incredibly important way to interact with a work of art. It’s also a lot of pressure to put on a play, but when Splendid Suns is firing on all theatrical cylinders, it more than lives up to the challenge.

Adapted from the novel by Ursula Rani Sarma and directed by ACT Artistic Director Carey Perloff (in a co-production with Theatre Calgary), the play takes much of its first act to find its legs and its momentum as we learn how the two main characters, Laila (Nadine Malouf) and Mariam (Kate Rigg) forged an enduring friendship amid circumstances involving a devastating bombing, an illegitimate child and a husband not at all averse to the idea of a second wife.

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Once Laila and Mariam have forged a loving family in spite of the rage-filled Rasheed (Kaysam Kadri), the story really takes off in Act 2. Laila’s children, daughter Aziza (Nikita Tewani) and son Zalmai (Neel Noronha), are growing up amid much hardship, including the Taliban’s horrific restrictions on women (not allowed to work, not allowed to go to school, not allowed outside the house except in a burqa and in the company of a man, etc.). There’s very little money or food, but there is love. Though the children are Laila’s, they are as much Mariam’s, and the powerful bond they all share is the most palpable thing in the 2 1/2-hour production.

Perloff guides her actors through beautiful, powerful performances. Malouf and Rigg are extraordinarily vivid as Laila and Mariam, and the young actors also make a strong impression. Denmo Ibrahim crackles with vibrancy in a number of small roles, and Kadri as Rasheed, representing the oppression of the patriarchy, still manages to convey a human side to this villain through the love and tenderness he shows his young son.

The stage design by Ken MacDonald conveys an impressionistic view of Kabul that is both beautiful and harsh. There’s spare ornamentation contrasting with barrenness, and the few set pieces conjure intricacy and ruin among the buildings themselves.

The power of this experience is the story itself. Mariam and Laila’s lives – their strength, their devotion, their connection to love despite its scarcity within the confines of their world – could be recounted in an empty space with no flourishes and still be emotionally shattering and inspiring. There’s something larger at work here than simply a play on a stage, and that is a slice of the human experience that illuminates a specific culture while connecting to the better (and worse) parts of our shared humanity. We fear, we lash out, we attempt to control and destroy, but we also connect and empower and create and love ferociously even when that seems an impossible feat.

The play’s (and the novel’s) title comes from Iranian poet Saib Tabrizi, who described the city as “enthralling to the eye”…One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs/And the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls.” And it’s the “behind her walls” part that is so intriguing. Where there is beauty of where there is desperation, the best of humanity and the worst, there will always be light burning with the intensity of the sun, even if we aren’t able to see it. That is hope, and that is the glowing center of this theatrical experience.

Kkaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, adapted by Ursula Rani Sarma, continues through Feb. 26 at ACT’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20 to $105. Call 415-749-2228 or visit

Theater Dogs’ Best of 2016

Best of 2016

The theater event that shook my year and reverberated through it constantly didn’t happen on Bay Area stage. Like so many others, I was blown away by Hamilton on Broadway in May and then on repeat and shuffle with the original cast album (and, later in the year, the Hamilton Mix Tape) ever since. Every YouTube video, official or fan made, became part of my queue, and checking Lin-Manuel Miranda’s incredibly busy Twitter feed has become a daily ritual. Hamilton is everything they say it is and more. It’s the gift that keeps on giving, the score that continually reveals its brilliance and a bond with friends, family and other fans. In a year in which hope seemed to physically shrivel and evaporate, Hamilton keeps bolstering my faith in art, in theater, in musical theater, in theater artists and even in this messy country of ours. The show has yet to fail in delighting, surprising or moving me, and I plan to continue testing that limit.

Now that Hamilton is a bona fide phenomenon, the conquering expansion is under way. There’s a company wowing them in Chicago with another set for San Francisco (and later Los Angeles) next spring as part of the SHN season. If you don’t already have your tickets, good luck. I’ll be entering the ticket lottery daily because there’s no conceivable way I can get enough of this show.

Shifting focus back home, theater in the San Francisco Bay Area continues to be a marvel, which is really something given the hostile economic environment arts groups are facing around here. I saw less theater this year (while Theater Dogs celebrated its 10th anniversary in August) and took some time off to reevaluate my theater reviewing future. The upshot is I’m still here, still reviewing but on a more limited scale given the demands of my day job. I’ve been writing about Bay Area theater for 24 years (25th anniversary in September 2017!) and love it too much to stop, and that’s the truth. With so many extraordinary artists here and an ever-intriguing roster of visitors, who could stop trying to spread the good word?

With that in mind, here are some of my favorite Bay Area theatergoing experiences of 2016. (click on the show title to read the original review)

A good year for San Francisco Playhouse

Making notes about the most memorable shows I saw this year, one company kept coming up over and over: San Francisco Playhouse. Talk about hitting your stride! They kicked off 2016 with a mind-blowingly creepy show, Jennifer Haley’s The Nether, a drama about virtual reality that blurred all kinds of lines between theater, audience, reality and fantasy. Thinking about this production, expertly directed by Bill English and designed by Nina Ball, still gives me the shivers. Two other shows made a powerful mark on the SF Playhouse stage as well: Andrew Hinderaker’s Colossal, a blend of drama and dance in the service of exploring football and masculinity, and Theresa Rebeck’s Seared about a hot little restaurant and its chef and loyal staff. I could also add the Playhouse’s musicals, which continue to grow in stature and quality as seen in City of Angels and She Loves Me. But I’ll just give those honorable mention so that one theater doesn’t take up half of this list.

Local playwrights shine

Let’s hear it for our local scribes who continue to devise startlingly good shows. Each of these writers should inspire any prospective audience member to check out whatever they happen to be working on.

Christopher Chen has a brain that knows no boundaries. His Caught, part of Shotgun Players’ stunning repertory season, was like an intellectual amusement park park ride as fun as it was provocative and challenging. Chen had another new show this year, but on a different scale. His Home Invasion was given small productions in a series of people’s living rooms as part of 6NewPlays a consortium of six writers creating new work under the auspices of the Intersection for the Arts Incubator Program. Directed by M. Graham Smith the play is set in a series of living rooms (how appropriate), but its realm expands way beyond its setting. The concepts of multidimensionality that come up in the play truly are mind altering, and what an extraordinary experience to get to watch such amazing actors – Kathryn Zdan and Lisa Anne Porter among them – in such an intimate space.

Peter Sinn Nachtrieb also took us into a home with a new play this year, but this home was built primarily in the theatrical imagination (and in the wondrously impressionistic sets by Sean Riley). In A House Tour of the Infamous Porter Family Mansion with Tour Guide Weston Ludlow Londonderry, Nachtrieb and his solo actor, the always-remarkable Danny Scheie, the audience got to play tourists as we moved from room to room in the most unique historical home tour imaginable. Commissioned by Z Space and written expressly for Scheie, this experience was so delectable we can only hope it will return for another tour of duty.

Not only is Lauren Gunderson a wonderful playwright, she also happens to be the most produced living playwright in the country this season. One of the reasons for that is the new play she wrote with Margot Melcon, Miss Bennett: Christmas at Pemberley, a sequel to Pride and Prejudice that delivers a feel-good Christmas experience with snap rather than sap (especially in the top-notch Marin Theatre Company production). Gunderson’s love of science and literature combined with her grace, intelligence, good humor and prodigious dramatic talents should continue yielding marvelous results for years to come.

Big drama at Thick House

Two companies in residence at Thick House continually do fantastic things on its small stage. Crowded Fire hit two shows out of the proverbial ballpark this year: Young Jean Lee’s The Shipment and Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s I Call My Brothers. Both plays explore different aspects of race, religion and being an outsider in this country, and both were powerful in their of-the-moment relevance and dramatic impact. The other company in residence at Thick House that dazzled is Golden Thread Productions, whose Our Enemies: Lively Scenes of Love and Combat by Yussef El Guindi delivered action and depth in its exploration of what it means, among other things, to be Muslim in this country. It should be noted that a significant part of what made both I Call My Brothers and Our Enemies so good was the work of the marvelous actor Denmo Ibrahim.

A dazzling finale for Impact

This one makes me as sad as it does happy. As it wound down its work at LaVal’s Subterranean, Impact Theatre unleashed yet another brilliant Shakespeare reinvention. This time it was The Comedy of Errors meets Looney Tunes, and the results in director Melissa Hillman’s production were inventively hilarious and so spot-on it’s a wonder Yosemite Sam or Bugs Bunny didn’t make cameo appearances. Here’s hoping that Impact returns in some form or another sometime soon.

My favorite play this year

Let the record show that this year Berkeley Repertory Theatre was home to two of my least favorite theater experiences (a ponderous Macbeth starring Frances McDormand and a disoncertingly disappointing For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday) as well as my favorite local theater experience: Julia Cho’s Aubergine. Sensitively directed by Tony Taccone, this deeply moving play about families, loss and growing up was rich in quiet beauty and full of performances that allowed the understated to just be. Food and memory played a big part in the drama, but it really came down to who we are within the defining experiences of our parents and our own mortality. A gorgeous production of a gorgeous play that said as much in silence as it did in sound.

Making friends with Golden Thread’s Enemies

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In Yussef El Guindi’s Our Enemies: Lively Scenes of Love and Combat, Arab-American authors and couple Noor (Denmo Ibrahim) and Gamal (James Asher) navigate tensions both personal and professional. Below: Mosque leader Sheikh Alfani (Munaf Alsafi, left) prepares to send his son Hani (Salim Razawi) off on his first trip to Egypt. Photos by David Allen Studio.

When you go to a show from a specialized company like Golden Thread Productions, which focuses on plays from and about the Middle East, you expect your perspective to be expanded, to have your assumptions challenged and to encounter voices you may not hear enough. In its 20 years, Golden Thread has earned a strong reputation for accomplishing all of the above and more with more than 100 new plays produced and truly enlarging the conversation about the Middle East to include a diversity of artists, experiences and points of view.

With Golden Thread’s latest production, Our Enemies: Lively Scenes of Love and Combat by Yussef El Guindi, the conversation about the Middle East is front and center as a Muslim American writer attempts to find her voice as a writer, publish a novel, maintain a relationship, combat stereotypes about Muslims and live her life with some degree of enjoyment, engagement and self-respect. But because this woman, Noor, is so beautifully drawn, we don’t see her simply as a spokesperson for her birth country or her religion or for all writers or all women. Rather we see her as Noor, an incredibly intelligent woman of complexity and beauty and talent and sensuality and temper and flaws.

Much of that richness comes from El Guindi’s script. The rest comes from the sublime performance by Denmo Ibrahim, an actor of commanding presence and depth. All the characters in the play are interesting and multi-dimensional, but Noor is the passionate center, even though not all the characters – notably the head of a Mosque and his son – interact with her directly. Hers is the strongest, funniest, most impassioned voice, even though others might shout more loudly. And here’s a triumph: we actually watch a writer write and it’s INTERESTING!

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The play’s subtitle, Lively Scenes of Love and Combat, turns out to be quite an accurate description of the two-plus-hour play, though the combat ends up being more lively, especially the battle between Noor and Mohsen (Kunal Prasad), a successful Egypt-born Muslim writer now living in the United States. His publisher (Annemaria Rajala) is interested in Noor’s manuscript (only if she can rewrite it to reflect more of the heroine’s Egyptian-American experience), so he’s recruited to woo her into the publishing house fold. The problem is that Mohsen has become a popular talking head representing the Muslim-American experience in the nauseating 24-hour news machine, and the viewpoint he espouses does not sit well with Noor or her combustible boyfriend, Gamal (James Asher). When Mohsen and Noor meet at a dinner party, the play crackles with intensity as their differing ideologies about how to represent their shared culture clash.

At least Noor is capable of having an intelligent, mostly civil conversation with her adversaries. Gamal, on the other hand, is becoming a loose canon who’s beginning to scare himself. The play opens with Gamal cleverly sabotaging one of Mohsen’s TV appearances, and the success of that disruption leads him to another involving Sheikh Alfani, the head of a local mosque who has also become a go-to guy when the media needs a Muslim representative.

Playwright El Guindi allows us to get to know these multifaceted characters more than we might in another play this full of action, which means that we see Sheikh Alfani (the superb Munaf Alsafi) not just as a victim of one of Gamal’s “pranks” but also a compassionate community leader and a loving father to his son, Hani (Salim Razawi), who will soon be making his first visit to see his extended family in Cairo. The father-son dynamic is powerful here, and in a series of scenes, most notably their goodbye at the airport, Hani’s first ecstatic, detailed report about his experiences in Cairo and his father’s emotional plea for him to return, we sense generations passing, culture evolving and depthless love existing alongside sorrow and fear.

This is a remarkable play for many reasons, not the least of which is its ability to deliver potent, emotional characters and a plot in which surprising things happen (and just a side note: how refreshing it is to experience a play where things actually happen!). There’s sex, deep rumination, harsh conflict, galvanizing anger, violence, manipulation, lying, fierce intelligence, incisive criticism and genuine affection. Director Torange Yeghiazarian and her tremendous actors throw the conversation wide open and invite the audience to be active participants in the drama. The elegant, simple set by Mikiko Uesugi allows for quick scene changes abetted by the effective background projections of Kevin August Landesman, and the pace never lags.

We care about El Guindi’s characters as people making their way in the world, even the ones we may not like much (like the pompous but somehow sweet publisher played by Dale Albright who practically fetishizes all things Egyptian). That makes for powerful, unforgettable theater, which ends up feeling an awful lot like the rich, frustrating and head-spinning love and combat of real life.

Yussef El Guindi’s Our Enemies: Lively Scenes of Love and Combat continues through Nov. 20 in a Golden Thread production at Thick House, 1695 18th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$34. Visit

Tense, riveting Brothers from Crowded Fire

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Denmo Ibrahim is Tyra, Amor’s grandmother and one of many people surrounding Amor (Shoresh Alaudini) in his time of need in Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s I Call My Brothers, a Crowded Fire Theater production at Thick House. Below: The cast of Brothers includes, from left, Olivia Rosaldo, Mohammad Shehata, Alaudini and Ibrahim. Photos by Pak Han

Not much happens in Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s I Call My Brothers, a Crowded Fire Theater production at Thick House. But then again, everything happens.

This is a mostly subterranean drama, which is to say, a little happens on the surface – a young man goes about his day running errands and interacting with friends and family – but a whole lot more is happening in his thoughts, his imagination, his paranoia. There’s a fragmented feeling to this 75-minute drama, and that’s reflected in the sculptural set design by Adeline Smith depicting what looks like a frozen explosion – all sharp, jagged edges – hovering just above the performance space.

Having that kind of visual energy dominating the space (and beautifully lit by Beth Hersh) makes sense for several reasons. In the play, set in a big New York-ish city, there has been a car bomb explosion in the heart of the metropolis, so the frozen explosions make sense in terms of that plot point. But it also lends an ominous, potentially dangerous tone as we explore the mental state of Amor, the young man, played with captivating intensity by Shoresh Alaudini.

The plot, such as it is, revolves around the possibility that Amor, because of what he looks like, because of the keffiyeh he wears around his neck, because of the color of his skin, because of his name, because of his big backpack, because of his cultural and religious background, will be suspected of being a terrorist. A repeated set of instructions to Amor and his brothers is to lie low, blend in and not draw attention (but try not to appear like you’re not trying to draw attention). So even the simplest thing, like going to the hardware store to replace a drill head, becomes fraught with tension. At least it does for Amor, who has a very active mind.

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One of the most interesting things about this play is that Khemiri, an admired Swedish playwright and novelist, blends something extreme and terrifying (like being considered a terrorist when you’re just a citizen going about your day) with the turmoil and drama of being a young man who has family issues (his dad has returned, with other family members, to the country he was born in) and romantic obsessions (he is in love with a childhood friend who does not return his affections beyond their friendship). As we spend time with Amor and get used to the way his mind flips back and forth in time and between fantasy and reality, we get that he’s incredibly intelligent, big hearted and rather unstable. That instability poses a constant threat that he might give in to his fantasies or succumb to the pressure (real or imagined) of being a dangerous criminal and do something stupid and/or dangerous (he does have an old knife in his pocket).

That tension is part of what propels director Evren Odcikin’ compelling, superbly acted production. The four-person cast brings focused energy that allows Alaudini’s Amor to remain the center of the action while surrounding him with key shadings of humor, reality, fantasy, danger and, ultimately, connection. Denmo Ibrahim is powerful in two key roles: a cousin who has embraced spirituality and a grandmother who provides solace. Olivia Rosaldo shines as a voice on the phone trying to get Amor to support animal rights but who turns out to be something more and as Valeria, Amor’s unrequited love. Mohammad Shehata is Amor’s best friend, Shavi, a guy who’s mostly talk until he marries and has a daughter. In many ways, Shavi – annoying and jittery and lovable – is the heart of the story, the person with the best chance of getting through to Amor and pulling him out of his head.

The play doesn’t seem to go anywhere, really, but in the end, Amor has undertaken quite a journey and ends his long, challenging day in a different, potentially more powerful headspace if only because he is less alone.

Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s I Call My Brothers continues through April 23 in a Crowded Fire Theater production at Thick House, 1695 18th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$35. Visit for information.