Don’t Punch The Actors: “Invasion!” gets the strong reaction it wants.

Badass Theatre Company's inaugural performance does justice to a tough script about (among other things) Arabic profiling.

John San Nicolas, Chantal DeGroat, Nicole Accuardi and Gilberto Martin Del Campo

John San Nicolas, Chantal DeGroat, Nicole Accuardi and Gilberto Martin
Del Campo overtake Milagro with Antonio Sonera’s brand-new Badass
Theatre Company.

DON’T PUNCH THE ACTORS. Notice might need to be posted at brand-new Badass Theater Company‘s “Invasion,” which whips its audience into such a fury that at Sunday’s talkback, several viewers reported a fleeting urge to get violent. Actors John San Nicolas, Gilberto Martin Del Campo, Chantal DeGroat, and Nicole Accuardi wore sly grins at the feedback. A strong reaction had been their intention.

Originally penned in Swedish by Jonas Hassen Khemiri and translated into English by Rachel Willson-Broyles, “Invasion!” puts four actors through rigorous—to quote DeGroat, “ass-kicking”—paces in a jerky series of scenes. One minute, they’re militar-esque “experts” on a talk show, the next, they’re teenage b-boys. Two of them (Del Campo and Accuardi) even reprise their recent roles from Post5’s “Arabian Nights” as romantic leads in Persian folkloric poetry. Only one thread ties all these disparate (even disjointed?) stories together: the traditional Arabic man’s name “Abulkasem.” Needless to say, in light of current world events, a Middle Eastern name carries more political implications—and more room for misinterpretation—than any old Pete, Bob, or Larry. (Khemiri, himself a frequent victim of profiling, should know.)

More than a name, the word “Abulkasem” is, in this story, a MacGuffin. The teens pick the word up from one kid’s gay Arab uncle (who prefers to be called “Lance” when he visits America), and they quickly absorb it into their slang, conjugating it into every figure of speech in a seeming nod to George Carlin’s bit on the linguistic flexibility of “f-ck.” This loose talk only fuels the speculation of eavesdropping experts, who’ve started tracking the name, mistakenly assuming that every mention refers to the same suspicious spy in different disguises. Upon coming of age, one of the kids assumes the name as his “pick up” identity in bars, spreading the word further til eventually a political-asylum-seeking Arab apple-picker gets branded “Abulkasem,” putting him in the crosshairs of the experts’ terrorism accusations.

In Badass’s version of “Invasion!”, the apple-picker lives in Hood River, Oregon—and that’s just one of several hyper-local references that give a sense of immediacy to the action. Portlanders’ ears are also perked by mentions of Suki’s Pub, Lewis & Clark College, and Sunriver Resort. Director Antonio Sonera explained that changing these references to match the region is standard protocol, undertaken by the New York and Bay area shows, too. After all, if the characters are “in your backyard,” you’re likely to feel more accountable for injustices that, further afield, could be shrugged off as someone else’s problem. (That apple-picker was just hanging out in Hood River! What’s going to happen to him?)

Maybe the most noteworthy surprises of this production (among many) are the actors’ agility and the tech staff’s coordination. This show has by far the most polished lighting and set design I’ve ever seen at Milagro. The theater’s overhead subtitles—a recent addition—are also borrowed to great effect. The show also boasts extremely tight blocking, especially in “expert” sections, where the group performs a routine of leg-crossing in lock-step.

Fortunately, Badass has cast some of the most versatile and dynamic actors in town. San Nicolas, as expected, is no slouch—an affable character, fast reactor and a rock-solid scene partner who suddenly turns dead-serious for the closing monologue. Accuardi, tasked with fine-tuning several different levels of integrity and poise, rises to the subtle challenge. But the real standouts are DeGroat, sporting audaciously believable b-boy drag and swagger, and Del Campo, who leaps effortlessly between smarmy TV announcer, swishy-and-sensitive “Lance”, and despairing, terrified Arab asylum-seeker—a role for which he learned a long monologue in Arabic.

While the other three share roles and goals in many scenes (they’re all teens, then they’re all experts), Del Campo is the odd man throughout. The actor and the characters he plays are both given a bigger burden to bear than the others—which, the play suggests, is what you get with an Arabic name. Still, in the talkback, Del Campo cautioned against oversimplifying the play’s message: “Everything is in there. If you want to find aggression, it’s there for you. But there are a lot of other things, too.” He’s right. Because during the course of this play, I went from wanting to punch the actors, to wanting to hug them.

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A. L. Adams also writes for  The Portland Mercury and is  former arts editor of Portland Monthly Magazine.
Read more from Adams: Oregon ArtsWatch  | The Portland Mercury
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