CHELSEA — Confusion, misinterpretation, cultural stereotypes, and racial profiling all take a hit in “Invasion,” a disturbing and sometimes disjointed political comic-drama now playing as part of Apollinaire Theatre Company’s free outdoor summer program in the Mary O’Malley Waterfront Park.
Playwright Jonas Hassen Khemiri builds his premise around the deliberate and accidental misuses of a name — Abulkasem — and then toys with ways in which that name can be used to serve an assortment of characters, from goofy high school students and a young teen on a weekend in the country to an annoyed grad student and a frustrated asylum seeker. Khemiri unleashes a torrent of words in a series of monologues that offer different characters’ perspectives on the same scene, suggesting how quickly we jump to politically motivated conclusions based on our background and expectations.
Khemiri’s monologues ricochet from a high school where students are introduced to the name Abulkasem at a production of “Arabian Nights,” and then turn the name to their own devices. Sometimes the scenes are connected and sometimes they aren’t, which adds to the play’s herky-jerky feel. In a bar scene, a young woman gives a fake phone number to a young man who calls himself Abulkasem, but the phone number belongs to an asylum seeker in hiding, who is frightened to hear from someone named Abulkasem. In a completely unconnected scene, a panel of “experts” spin their speculative information about a potential terrorist called Abulkasem into a worldwide manhunt, even though no one can point to any crime, or even identify exactly who Abulkasem is.
In one of the funniest and most frightening scenes, an interpreter is brought in to help the asylum seeker tell his story. What begins as simple background (Dale J. Young delivering a wonderfully nuanced performance) turns into a racist manifesto when the interpreter (Alana Osborn-Lief) blithely misinterprets, translating his innocuous tale into an offensive rant. The notion of trusting interpretations is particularly telling since Khemiri’s play was originally written in Swedish and has been translated into English by Rachel Wilson-Broyles.
Director Danielle Fauteux Jacques is creative about the staging of these monologues, finding ways to balance the often comic situations with the underlying theme of our misguided definition of all Arab males as terrorists. Fauteux Jacques creates an effective flow that allows her ensemble to blend into a crowd and then emerge as distinct characters, with Feliz Teich and Jacob Athyal among the standouts.
The setting, a simple stage with the audience sprawled on blankets and folding chairs (bring your own) works well for this fast-paced collection of scenes. Fauteux Jacques takes advantage of a second setting, the nearby dock, for the final scene, creating a cinematic effect for a monologue that illustrates a real or imagined memory, calling into question even the information we think we are certain of.
The deconstructed structure of “Invasion” may inhibit the dramatic flow, but Khemiri’s ability to pull apart our prejudices and our assumptions about the “threat” of Arab men effectively jolts us out of our comfort zone.Terry Byrne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.