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Playfulness and seriousness disturbingly intermingle in Jonas Hassen Khemiri's satisfying play.

Bobby Moreno and Debargo Sanyal
in Invasion!
(© Carol Rosegg)
Playfulness and seriousness intermingle to disturbing --and awfully satisfying --effect in Swedish novelist and playwright Jonas Hassen Khemiri's Invasion!, receiving its U.S. premiere at Walkerspace. Khemini's play, translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles, has a curiously moving lyricism, a cutting bluntness, and a grandly subversive sense of humor. (His use of lyrics from ABBA songs is an utter delight.)

The work takes audiences through a series of events in which the name "Abulkasem" becomes linked to a wide-range of people. Among them are a gay exterminator from Lebanon, a nerdy Indian telemarketer, a world-renowned Muslim experimental theater director, and an Arab man who's seeking asylum in the U.S. Interspersed with the scenes in which audiences meet or hear about these characters are ones in which a trio of political analysts describe the threat that's posed by a much-hunted terrorist, who also bears the name Abulkasem.

It's a loopy and initially seeming random series of events that could potentially confuse or simply bewilder audiences. But in director Erica Schmidt's always compelling staging, which unfolds with lightning-like rapidity in a sterile industrial environment created by Antje Ellermann, theatergoers find themselves hooked from the show's opening moments, easily following the dizzying barrage of characters and narratives and grasping the unsettling, but never pedantic, commentary that Khemini is offering up about the nature of racial stereotypes and the concept of terrorism in today's world.

Equally impressive is the work from the multiply cast four-person ensemble, each of whom shifts between a host of roles with ease, delivering vividly conceived characterizations. Debargo Sanyal captures theatergoers' attentions as the first character to invoke the seemingly magical name, playing Arvind, the telemarketer, with a mixture of comic bravado and almost pitiable awkwardness as he tries to pick up Lara (Francis Benhamou), at a dive bar (Matthew Richards' vibrant lighting design and Bar Fasbender's pulsating sound design both play a crucial role in defining space).

Benhamou, who imbues Lara with sweetness and coyness as Arvind makes his moves, later embellishes the character with a lightly snarky and to-the-manor born air as Lara relates her own version of events that evening, invoking "Abulkasem" for her own purposes. Later, the actress proves to be a terrifically dry comedian as she plays the translator who's been employed for the unnamed apple picker (Andrew Guilarte), whose story hysterically intersects with Arvind and Lara's.

Guiltare brings a gentleness and sad desperation to the laborer, creating a striking difference between his cheery and giddily flamboyant turn as the Lebanese exterminator and his steely, no-nonsense portrayal of the man interviewing the experts on the whereabouts of terrorist Abulkasem. Bobby Moreno, who plays the exterminator's thuggy teen nephew with curiously endearing aggressiveness, makes the most striking impression during the play's final moments. He plays a boy who witnesses a scary series of events unfold while vacationing in the country with a school chum with such innocence and uncalculated grace, that it's possible to feel a modicum of hope, even as one feels a distinct chill.