- Ancram Opera House co-director Paul Ricciardi running a storytelling workshop in May 2022.
The United States, which was last invaded by the British in 1814, is terrified of foreign invasion. Fox News pumps out daily stories about hordes of illegal immigrants violating our southern border. The play “Invasion!,” which begins at the Ancram Opera House on August 5, centers around the collective fear of malevolent foreigners.
“Invasion!” was written by Jonas Hassen Khemiri, who is Swedish-Tunisian, and draws on his experience growing up in Sweden. (His family spoke four languages: French, English, Swedish, and Arabic.) It’s a difficult play to describe. The original New York Times review refused to divulge the plot. In a sense, “Invasion!” is about how difficult anything is to describe. There’s a point in every good mystery novel where no theory seems to fit the facts. Khemiri creates this atmosphere throughout “Invasion!,” his first dramatic work. “At the core is this character Abulkasem, who is an unidentifiable person; what’s driving the play is the question: ‘Who is Abulkasem?’” remarks Jeffrey Mousseau, the director. The play was composed during the George W. Bush administration, when “Arab terrorism” was a merciless mantra.
“Invasion!” is a series of loosely connected vignettes with a satirical edge. Four actors play 17 roles. The language is fast and profuse. In an interview, the 43-year-old Khemiri described reading Faulkner for the first time: “I really got a sense that I can breathe—because someone took me by the hand and said, ‘There are limitless possibilities to telling a story.’” (Besides Faulkner, he mentions his debt to the rapper Nas.)
Khemiri has written six plays and five novels. In 2013, his open letter to the Swedish Minister of Justice, Beatrice Ask, about his experiences with racial profiling became a national sensation. “I am writing to you with a simple request, Beatrice Ask. For 24 hours we’ll borrow each other’s bodies,” Khemiri proposed. He would learn how a woman feels in the patriarchal world of politics; she’d learn what it’s like to be constantly eyed by suspicious policemen. This absurd, incisive style is typical of Khemiri.
Mousseau saw “Invasion!” in 2011, when it was first produced at the Flea Theater in Manhattan. (Khemiri won an Obie for playwriting for the production.) Ever since, he’s been looking for an opportunity to produce it. “One of the things that drew me to the play originally was one of the stories is about an experience a man has while riding the train to upstate New York,” Mousseau reveals. “So, some of it takes place in our neck of the woods, which creates a little more immediacy.” Parts of “Invasion!” were written during a residency at Ledig House at Art Omi.
Mousseau’s directing style allows improvisation during the play’s development, and emphasizes an ensemble spirit. “It’s about creating cohesion, unity to a production without the audience knowing that someone actually did that,” he observes. “There’s an invisibility to it.” The auditions and early rehearsals took place in New York City. This is an Equity production.
The building housing the Ancram Opera House was erected as a Grange Hall in 1927. When the local Grange chapter was discontinued, the first opera was presented there in 1972. In 2016, the opera house became a nonprofit organization, under the leadership of codirectors Mousseau and Paul Ricciardi (who are, incidentally, married). A program of cabaret, theater, artist residencies, and staged readings was instituted. An ongoing storytelling project with the Taconic Hills Central School District began in 2020.
The Grange was a progressive agricultural movement fighting railroad monopolies. It was the first male-dominated organization to allow women as full-fledged members. I suspect that ghosts of the Grange members are smiling on “Invasion!”.
"Invasion" will be staged at the Ancram Opera House August 5 - 21.