Invasion!, now in its West Coast premiere at Crowded Fire Theater, is a series of theatrical coups. One moment you're watching the kind of exoticized, Arabian Nights-esque tale that makes you shift uncomfortably in your seat. "I thought I'd be seeing 'a humorous and biting take on Middle Eastern identity in the U.S.,'" you think, "not channeling my inner Edward Said."
But the next moment, your savior appears -- if not in the form of the trailblazing academic himself, then as his gleeful, marauding ambassadors (Wiley Naman Strasser and George Psarras), who wreak both havoc and catharsis as they expose the decoy of a first scene for the orientalist baloney it is.
To reveal too much of how Jonas Hassen Khemeri's play achieves its perpetual shifts in frame of reference would spoil one of its principal joys. But as it constantly subverts itself, always saying, "This is no longer the play you thought you were watching," one thing remains consistent: the power and mystique of the word "Abulkasem."
In Islam, Abu'l Qasim is a male name connecting its bearer to the prophet Mohammad.
Many prominent Muslims -- poets and scholars, generals and politicians, and most famously, a pioneering surgeon -- are named a version of it, so it appears frequently in the religion's history. In Invasion!, "Abulkasem" has a similarly complex evolution. It starts out as a "sweeeeeeet name" in a school cafeteria. It then becomes a colloquialism that "could mean absolutely anything:" verb or adjective, insult or compliment, which results, of course, in humorous misunderstandings. But it then works in more nefarious ways -- as a false identity, as the root of a lie -- until it becomes the object of a sweeping anti-terrorism campaign.
Khemeri's play, in telling the story of a single word, also tells a larger story of how language works, how in conjunction with the right delivery and the right context, we create words that are more powerful than we are. Such words teem with associations; they are canvases on which we project millions of personal anxieties; they mean everything -- and thus, in a way, they mean nothing.
Highfalutin as this sounds, director Evren Odcikin never makes the production pedantic. His lively, minimalist staging highlights the gifts of his four-person ensemble (Lawrence Radecker and Olivia Rosaldo-Pratt, along with Strasser and Psarras), each of whom makes multiple roles into distinctly different people. Strasser, in particular, taps into a joyous, possessed energy that endows his performances, controlled and professional as they are, with a wild streak. At the end of the play, he delivers a monologue that's as unhinged as he is. Here's just a fraction of it:
I remember it wasn't so long ago, it was summer vacation after eighth grade, late‐night hanging out at McDonald's, it was fries and coke buck fifty, it was "come on, pass back the change, bro," it was "hey poor man, you already owe me," it was "I swear on my mom's life you'll get it next week, I swear." It was scribbling swear words all over the tray liners, sitting and chatting made up sex stories until close, paper napkins and straws along out on the town. It was sitting on the bus on round after round, it was shooting wads of paper at sleepy drunk white boys, it was macking on chicks with Buffalo Boots, it was begging cigs at bus stops, it was going home when the morning light came up over the bridge and the city was filled with red. It was saying "tsbahallscher" at Ibrahim's door and it was "see you tomorrow" and it was me and Peter who went home to our courtyard and then it was Peter who also said "tsbahallscher" and used exactly the right pronunciation even though he was from a really all‐American family that drove a Volvo and had a place in the country and hamburgers in the fridge and a subscription to the Wall Street Journal that came with the mail every morning.
A play about language has to have beautiful language itself, as this vivid and rhythmic passage does. But it also has to sneak up on you, to worm its way into your consciousness and then make you marvel at how it (and everything else) got there. Invasion! accomplishes that and more. It fakes you out, it makes you want it to slow down, it makes you look hard at how you make words and how words make you conjure -- and it makes you wonder how many of those decisions are yours.