nytheatre.com review by Stephen Kaliski
September 9, 2011
When tasked with reviewing a play that’s already won an Obie and stirred whispers of a new literary sensation, I sensed that I was walking into a gift assignment. I missed Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s Invasion! at Walkerspace earlier this year, and with The Play Company’s welcome remount at the Flea, I had a chance to correct my nagging regret.
Unlike the letdown of ripping off the wrapping to find a broken toy, there’s nothing disappointing in this absolute gift of a production, a marvel of language and theatricality that provokes just as expertly as it entertains. I’m not surprised that Khemiri, a Swedish-Tunisian writer who wrote this play in 2006, is also a rising novelist. While watching Invasion!, I thought of Roberto Bolaño’s magnum opus 2666, in which worlds swirl around the mysterious power of a single name or a single place. I thought of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, in which disparate stories connect purely through the crystalline world view of the author. But whereas Mitchell’s work maps the human soul through all time, Khemiri’s taut yet hilarious play is an atlas of uncertainty and identity in this American moment.
Khemiri asks his characters and audience, “Who is Abulkasem?” It’s a silly question to pose without context. We don’t even know how to pronounce that name much less give an informed response about his/her identity. “Never mind that,” Khemiri seems to say. “Answer anyway.”
“Who is Abulkasem?” hovers over Invasion! like a question of Congressional importance, and its hybrid urgency/incomprehensibility takes us on a brilliantly observed—and very, very funny—journey of how we fill in words when we don’t know the first thing about them. In one episode between high school students, “Abulkasem” becomes verb, noun, and adjective. It becomes praise and blasphemy. It becomes celebration and defeat. In short, it becomes whatever an impulsive high schooler needs it to be.
The great social criticism at work in Invasion! is the way that we sculpt ambiguity into whichever shape will fill our current voids. Coming on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, the play as much reflects on the last decade as it indicts the present. How have we dealt with ambiguity in the wake of our own swagger being torn asunder? Have we been too inclined to invent answers and assign identities before we’ve fully understood the nature of the question? How has this action come at the expense of the people wearing our improvised nametags? There are soapbox issues at work here, from xenophobia to stereotyping to pandemic fear of the Middle East, and each is a symptom of the systemic ills that Khemiri mines with his Abulkasem.
It’s serious stuff, sure, but unlike the often grave tone of post-9/11 art, Khemiri understands that hilarity has a much closer relationship to horror than one might expect. Without giving too much away, one of the play’s most hysterical yet disturbing moments involves some intentional misunderstanding over a certain Broadway jukebox musical.
The many luminous feats of its storytelling and theatricality make me wary of summarizing much else, but I assure you that you’ll be taken by how well the European Khemiri and his nimble translator Rachel Willson-Broyles have watched our culture. They’re aided by a mesmerizing cast of four who undergo some of the most convincing transformations you’ll see in an ensemble piece. Andrew Ramcharan Guilarte, Francis Benhamou, Bobby Moreno, and Nick Choksi each have triumphant showcase moments, but Choksi bears special mention for being the only new addition to the cast. Fans of the original, have no fear. Choksi never misses a beat.
The rest of the creative team rises to the occasion as well. Director Erica Schmidt mirrors Khemiri’s caustic levity with a smart, snappy production, putting buttons in all the right places without compromising the text’s sorrowful heart. Her work with set designer Antje Ellerman proves that you can accomplish miraculous coups within the deceptively simple trappings of a small stage. Oana Botez-Ban’s costumes, Matthew Richards’ lights, and Bart Fasbender’s sound all support Khemiri’s world of ill-advised assumptions.
If you missed Invasion! last time around, you must go this time. It’s as simple as that. For returning viewers, this may seem like an impossible compliment for a play written in 2006, but I believe the material fits late summer 2011 even better than late winter. It’s as current as Hurricane Irene, but unlike that force of nature, this one’s gaining strength as it whips through Manhattan.