Courtesy photoWry word play: An apple-picking asylum seeker (George Psarras) reveals his story through an Interpreter (Olivia Rosaldo-Pratt) in “Invasion!”

Crowded Fire Theater puts on an inventive ‘Invasion!’

Just when you think you’ve figured out who the characters are, and what’s going on in Tunisian-Swedish playwright Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s 2011 Obie Award winner “Invasion!” you’re thrown for a loop.

The satirical comedy, which premiered in Sweden in 2006, is receiving a buoyant production by Crowded Fire Theater Company under director Evren Odcikin.

Woven throughout is the mystery of a quasi-mythological figure called Abulkasem. He’s first referred to by a high school kid who savors the sound of the name, and the word becomes joking, multipurpose slang at his school.

Is Abulkasem his eccentric, dancing uncle from Lebanon?

The scene shifts; the actors switch roles (but sometimes assume the same role from scene to scene).

Now it appears Abulkasem might be the contrived, swaggering persona adopted by a shy Turkish telemarketer trying to pick up a girl in a bar. Or is Abulkasem a she — a famous and well-connected avant-garde theater director? Or an immigrant apple-picker turned Muslim terrorist?

Fragmented scenes morph abruptly into other scenes; some replay from different, even contradictory, perspectives.

At the play’s heart is a serious theatricalization of the experience of the Middle Eastern immigrant. Cultural prejudices and assumptions collide in ways that — if you avoid wasting too much time trying to figure out what’s what — are funny and scary and have the ring of truth.

The four actors — Lawrence Radecker, George Psarras, Olivia Rosaldo-Pratt and Wiley Naman Strasser — are a rock-solid ensemble, effortlessly and convincingly moving from character to character without ever needing to change costumes.

In one especially potent scene, the beaten-down apple picker switches from halting English to tell his story more fully and expressively in fluent Arabic; as his monologue continues, it appears clear he’s excitedly discussing the songs of ABBA — but his earnest interpreter translates his speech into phrases like, “There’s no one I hate more than Jews!” with their hateful curls and long noses, and impassioned declarations about wanting to murder them all.

The multilingual Khemiri knows all about the ways language can betray and subvert. (Although he speaks English, the playwright preferred to have his play translated from the Swedish, and Rachel Willson-Broyles has done so, most impressively — the vernacular feels completely contemporary American.)

If “Invasion!” is a little too drawn out despite its 90-minute length, a little too cleverly scrambled and verbose, it’s nonetheless a welcome addition to the increasing, and much needed, canon of plays on Middle Eastern themes.

REVIEW

Invasion!

Presented by Crowded Fire Theater Company

Where: Boxcar Playhouse, 505 Natoma St., S.F.

When:
8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; closes Sept. 29

Tickets: $15 to $30

Contact: (415) 746-9238, www.crowdedfire.org

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