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Invasion! at Silk Road Rising: Theater review

Swedish playwright Jonas Hassen Khemeri's series of vignettes about Arab identity doesn't fully connect in its Chicago premiere.

 (Photograph: Michael Brosilow)
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Photograph: Michael Brosilow

Dan Johnson and Kamal Hans in Invasion! at Silk Road Rising

 (Photograph: Michael Brosilow)
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Photograph: Michael Brosilow

Invasion! at Silk Road Rising

 (Photograph: Michael Brosilow)
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Photograph: Michael Brosilow

Glenn Stanton and Amira Sabbagh in Invasion! at Silk Road Rising

 (Photograph: Michael Brosilow)
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Photograph: Michael Brosilow

Amira Sabbagh in Invasion! at Silk Road Rising

 (Photograph: Michael Brosilow)
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Photograph: Michael Brosilow

Glenn Stanton, Dan Johnson, Amira Sabbagh and Kamal Hans in Invasion! at Silk Road Rising

 (Photograph: Michael Brosilow)
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Photograph: Michael Brosilow

Invasion! at Silk Road Rising

 (Photograph: Michael Brosilow)
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Photograph: Michael Brosilow

Invasion! at Silk Road Rising

 (Photograph: Michael Brosilow)
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Photograph: Michael Brosilow

Invasion! at Silk Road Rising

 (Photograph: Michael Brosilow)
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Photograph: Michael Brosilow

Invasion! at Silk Road Rising

 (Photograph: Michael Brosilow)
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Photograph: Michael Brosilow

Invasion! at Silk Road Rising

 (Photograph: Michael Brosilow)
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Photograph: Michael Brosilow

Invasion! at Silk Road Rising

 (Photograph: Michael Brosilow)
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Photograph: Michael Brosilow

Invasion! at Silk Road Rising

The refractory Invasion!, a meditation on the powers of language and skin color that's occasionally insightful but more often frustrating, opens with a disruption of our expectations of theater decorum. I don't want to reveal too much detail, since I'll admit I was ever so briefly taken in by the ruse, which I suspect gets at what playwright Jonas Hassen Khemiri was going for with the move. But the fact that Invasion! seems to retain the same stuttery energy of that initial infraction throughout the 80-minute running time of its Chicago premiere quickly turns problematic.

The son of a Swedish mother and Tunisian father, Khemiri grew up with dark hair and brown skin in a country that still places a premium on its Nordic, blonde-haired and blue-eyed heritage. Invasion!—his first play, written in 2006—aims to investigate the ways the primarily Arab or South Asian male is viewed as the Other (though he also has some fun with the character of a Muslim woman who's condescended to by her liberal-arts grad school classmates). Khemiri also plays with the idea of an Arab-sounding name—Abulkasem—taking on a life of its own as it's transmuted from one speaker to another like a game of Telephone, eventually becoming the moniker of a terrorist who may or may not really exist.

Yet Khemiri's episodic play, which falls somewhere on the spectrum between Second City–style sketch work and George C. Wolfe's pointed satire The Colored Museum, seems to lose something in the translation from Sweden to Chicago.

It's hard to pin down that disconnect, though perhaps it's a matter of the possibly even more complicated racial and ethnic tensions in the U.S., or the clunking Chicago-specific references in Silk Road Rising's production (it's not clear if they're down to translator Rachel Willson-Broyles, who also worked on a well-received New York production of the play last year, or Silk Road's director, Anna C. Bahow).

Of the four-person cast, Omer Abbas Salem seemed to show the best poise and comic timing at the press opening—surprising since he's an understudy who took over the track of injured primary cast member Dan Johnson (who's pictured in the production photos above) just a day prior.

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