You Don’t Know Abulkasem

15. September, 2012 Theater No comments

Invasion! is a puzzling play. Written by Tunisian-Swedish playwright Jonas Hassen Khemiri and translated from the original Swedish by Rachel Willson-Broyles, it touches upon themes of youth culture, anti-Islamic xenophobia, language, and identity, but in a fragmented, scattershot way that almost but not quite comes together to form a rough mosaic portrait. But of what?  If anything it’s of the mysterious Abulkasem, and he’s ultimately unknowable, apocryphal, based on faulty premises. But even if it’s hard to know what to make of it when all’s said and done, Crowded Fire Theater’s sharp West Coast premiere makes the saying and doing tremendously entertaining along the way.

Olivia Rosaldo-Pratt and George Psarras in Invasion! Photo by Pak Han.

Alex Friedman’s set has the walls of the Boxcar Playhouse completely covered with newspaper, which in turn is covered with puzzling graffiti: “DEBT TO AMERICA,” “FREE,” NOT YOU.”  The audience is seated in the round around an intimate circular stage.

The play begins with an elaborate fake-out, like something out of Arabian Nights, with Lawrence Radecker and Olivia Rosaldo-Pratt in harem pants (the costumes, which are otherwise street clothes, are by Miyuki Bierlein) declaiming about Abulkasem and Antonia Luna amid Middle Eastern music and a small pile of Persian rugs and pillows. It’s either a section of Carl Jonas Love Almqvist’s 1835 play Signora Luna or something made up to suggest it. In any case, they’re soon heckled and shoved off the stage by a couple of yahoos who claim it for themselves with a bullhorn and a whole lot of empty fronting. “Are there any real brothers in the house or just a bunch of theater fags?” one of them yells. “Slumdog running the show now, bitches!”

So at the start all we know about these guys is that they’re assholes. But it scarcely matters, because while one of them may appear to be the protagonist for a little while, ultimately Invasion! doesn’t really have one. There’s less of a through line to the play than a loosely woven web that expands outwards from an undefined center embodied by the mysterious figure of Abulkasem, less a specific person than a name that means any number of things to any number of people.

But first we have to get to know the dicks. It turns out that they were in the audience as part of a class field trip with a teacher who suffered a nervous breakdown after the incident. “It’s the first play I’ve even seen in my life, and it’s total shit,” says Arvind, played with feverish bravado by George Psarras. His buddy Yousef (Wiley Naman Strasser) is more contemplative. “But isn’t Abulkasem a sweet name?” he says, and we’re told the other teenagers tease him mercilessly about it.

Yousef has an uncle in Lebanon named Abulkasem, and in the next extended tangent we hear al about him. As played by Radecker, this Abulkasem is a happy-go-lucky, effusive, obviously gay aspiring dancer who prefers to be called Lance. His is a charming, bittersweet story that still isn’t a story as much as an anecdote.

Meanwhile everyone at in Yousef’s circle of friends starts using “Abulkasem” as an all-purpose phrase to mean whatever they wanted it to mean, that one proper name becoming a language all its own. “It could be an adjective… verb… It could be an insult… It could be a compliment… It was the perfect word.” This whole spiel is pretty funny, but of course it’s describing a high school world that we get only the barest glimpse of before moving on. There are a lot of references to members of their circle of friends that we never meet. Strasser plays another one of them as well, Erik, although in such a minor capacity that I’m not sure why Khemiri bothered to make him a separate character from Yousef.

Wiley Naman Strasser and Oliva Rosaldo-Pratt in Invasion! Photo by Pak Han.

There’s a pretty funny scene in which Arvind tries to pick up a hot girl in a bar (Rosaldo-Pratt, shaking out her hair like she’s in slo-mo in an ’80s movie) and stumbles all over himself until he decides to pretend his name’s Abulkasem, at which point he instantly becomes confident and smooth in the cheesiest way possible and gets her number.  Or so he thinks—when we see the scene again from her perspective, it plays out very differently. She’s going to meet her theater seminar group, who soon start annoying her with inane observations about Muslim culture, so she talks about the visionary female Muslim director who inspired her to get into theater, but she totally blanks on her name and calls her Abulkasem, because it’s not like the others are going to know the difference.

Clearly there’s a lot of Abulkasem going on here, and it’s far from a name that Khemiri made up. Besides the Almqvist play, there’s a miserly merchant named Abu Kasem with an old and disgusting pair of slippers in one of the stories in One Thousand and One Nights. There are many articles online by an Abul Kasem, an ex-Muslim fiercely critical of Islam. There are several interludes in which Radecker plays a moderator with a panel of experts on Abulkasem who talk about ancient and modern Abulkasems as if they’re the same person, citing various scholarly sources. As these sections go on, the panelists become less scholarly and more like intelligence agents dedicated to hunting down this apocryphal person, obsessively cataloguing his various escapes and disguises, which include every incidental Abulkasem we’ve heard about in the play so far, from Lance to Arvind to the visionary theater director. “Everybody agrees that Abulkasem is the greatest threat to our common future,” one of them says, but why or how none can say.

Psarras gives a particularly touching turn as an immigrant apple picker with very little English who’s being terrorized by phone calls he doesn’t understand that tie in with another story we’ve already heard. Although halting and fragmented in English, what he has to say becomes very eloquent when he’s free to speak Arabic and provided an interpreter (a serene Rosaldo-Pratt). But what he has to say soon takes a darker turn that seems very much at odds with the simple, earnest man we’ve seen—and it soon becomes clear that the translator is telling us something very different from what he’s actually saying. It’s a scene that becomes very sobering and hilarious at the same time.

Director Evren Odcikin gives the play a dynamic, fast-paced staging that keeps the energy high (Sara Huddleston’s sound design gives it an occasional kick in the pants with bits of Beastie Boys or Patti Smith) but also occasionally makes a challenging play harder to fathom. A very big deal is made of the final speech, with an elaborate introduction of Strasser playing the playwright’s little brother. He tells a shaggy-dog story about a traumatic thing seen in his neighborhood, and it’s clearly supposed to be important, but Strasser speeds though it so breathlessly (playing a little kid, after all) that it’s hard to take in all of what he’s saying or to connect it to anything else in the play. Just when it seems like it’s all coming together, after the interpreter scene, the play slips through your fingers, becoming unknowable again. Much like Abulkasem.

Crowded Fire Theater
Through September 29
Boxcar Playhouse
505 Natoma St.
San Francisco, CA

Show #83 of 2012, attended September 8.

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