So we were sitting sharing hookah, as the four of us are want to do, Luisa Sermol, Victor Mack, young Master Sonera, and myself; a familiar “rap session” after one of our many company meetings, when the topic of conversation switched from a discussion of the Verfremdungseffekt and whether its place in modern theatre has been superseded by reality television, to naturally, Invasion!. ‘The thing,’ Tony said ‘that people keep telling me, is that Invasion! changed everything.’ Needless to say this was met in no uncertain terms by perhaps the most plussed of nonplussed reactions I have ever witnessed. I choked on my chilled apple blossom smoke. Luisa, ever the image of restraint, openly guffawed! Whilst Victor’s right ear curled down in that strangely coquettish way of his.
Tony continued ‘No really, I heard this, was told this by…’ and here he rattled off a catalogue of Portland theatrical luminaries that I blush to recall. Suffice it to say dear reader that they were all names that you would probably know. You might well even be one of the aforementioned. If so fear not, your secret is safe with us. Tony, not one known for the telling of tales, held us rapt with his narrative. To hear him tell it, the lobby of the Miracle was a tumult of commotion, like a flash mob of Jesus Christ Superstar fans on the cusp of breaking into a rousing rendition of “What’s the Buzz.” And into this tumult he walked, hair flowing in the fantastical breeze of high happy foofaraw to accept a litany of variations on the theme ‘this changes everything.’ Tale told, the three of us took turns responding. In my naturally concise way I simply gave a thoughtful nod. Luisa returning to form, held back her secret misgivings and said that Tony ‘may have a point.’ It was Victor, who with the subtlest of declinations of his chin and that amazing corkscrew twist he puts into his left eyebrow, clearly all but spoke the words we were thinking; “But Tony if that were true, if Invasion! was such a game changer, wouldn’t we have garnered more recognition from the Drammy Committee than Chantal’s clearly deserved nomination?” At this we all fell into a pensive silence that lasted the rest of the night.
This is of course all bullshit. Well except that light hearted little dig at the Drammy Committee, and the thing that Victor does with his eyebrow. Seriously buy the man a couple of drinks and he might do it for you. Invasion! was the best show that I have ever worked on, and I am so excited that we’re getting the chance to do a brief revival, but it didn’t change anything.
WARNING! HERE THERE BE (little) SPOILERS!!!
Let’s take it one piece at a time:
The infamous coup de theatre’ and the unwitting, shocking inclusion of the audience in the action of the play: Nothing new. The Performance Group, and others like them were doing this sort of thing all the time in the 60’s and 70’s, and well before. I only mention The Performance Group because their Dionysius ’69 was possibly even more extreme. At the penultimate moment in the show, Bacchus asks the audience if any among them would speak up for Pentheus. Almost every night no one did and the execution of Pentheus proceeds as planned. But one night (history has it that it was a young Kathleen Turner) stood up and came forward and said that she would take Pentheus that he may be spared. And he went. The actors all looked at each other, announced that Pentheus was spared and the show was over. Another version of the story, or perhaps on another night, several college students who had seen the show before, staged an audience revolt and “rescued” Pentheus, physically removing him from the theatre. So, nope, coup de theatre,’ and designed audience involvement, already there. Nothing new.
There’s the set, and the way that it is made up all shine and curves and silk for the ‘high culture’ presentation of Signora Luna’s Abulkasem the Arab Corsair, which is immediately torn down to reveal drab, and angles, and newspaper. It describes a (false) dichotomy of high vs low culture, and then quite effectively destroys it once the coup de theatre is complete, and it is revealed that the low brow set is for a much higher concept show than its predecessor could ever have been. And thank God for that, because that show would have sucked! Doing this sort of work with the set, designing it to explicate a central tenant of the show, calls to mind the set for David Henry Hwang’s M.Buttefly. That set was comprised of main acting spaces attached by a walkway. But instead of being parallel to each other, as if they were opposite poles or ends of a spectrum, they were twisted so that one was raised above the other with the connecting travel space becoming a curved walkway. The impression given was one of two poles being forced together, or of the physical representation of an ideological binary being twisted to the breaking point. The set design, combined with the way scenes were blocked and where the two main characters “lived” on stage did more to problematize essentalized notions of gender, sexual identity, race, and power, and did it more elegantly than any production that comes to mind in the past fifty years or more. So nope, Invasion! didn’t change anything there either.
About the way the playwright blends and binds source material and subject matter and subtext within the structure of the play, and his way with language, I could, and in fact have gone on about for considerable length. (see "Sweden Isn't Perfect" above) So I’ll make this brief; Stoppard. Yeah I said it, and I don’t care. Stoppard is the Simpsons of the theatre. It’s not cliché if it’s true. The two hander “Etymology of Abulkasem” in scene one of Invasion!: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Story and subtext as explicated by structure: Arcadia. Do I need to explain these? I really don’t think so. In fact I’d do the textual equivalent of a mic-drop here, but that would make it hard to finish writing this post. And if you’re keeping score, Invasion! still hasn’t changed theatre.
Probably the most effective thing this play does is the way it debunks the notion of a simplified monolithic Other. Through its captivating, often unique language, complex characters, well deployed meta-theatrical excursions, and multimedia accents, Invasion! breaks down so many archetypal characters into realistic people, with complex motivations and identity, that to those truly paying attention, the idea of a worldview based on Us and Them, is rendered ludicrous. And, you guessed it; been done already. Submited for your approval; Ping Chong’s Chinoiserie, a multi-media, meta-theatreical composition of performance and personal essays told by Chong himself, while four actors and three musicians perform and improvise scenes taken from history, primary documentation, and popular culture. To quote J Chambers-Letson’s 2011 article on the production:
“Chinoiserie stages the historical, social, and legal production of Chinese and Asian American subjects as simultaneously interior and exterior to forms of ideal national,racial, and juridical belonging. In doing so, the production documents and critiques the subjection of Asian Americans to a state of racial exception.”
MELUS, 36.4 2011
Take out “Chinese” and replace it with “Middle Eastern, North African” and you’ve got a beautifully crafted, academic description of Invasion!. Okay “juridical” may be a bit of a stretch, but everything else is spot on. Bottom line, Invasion! didn’t change the way we depict race and culture on stage.
“So then,” I’m sure you’re asking Dear Reader, “why the hell do I want to see this show?” Simply put, because it is one of the best things you will see on stage. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not really saying Invasion! didn’t change anything. Did it change the way some people think about class and culture? I’m pretty sure it did, and I know the whole cast and crew are very proud of that fact, but in the end, Invasion! didn’t change anything about the theatre. It just did a really good job at doing the same things that other amazing productions have done before it. It did them for everyone, for little or no money, with passion and pathos, humor and intensity. The day after Invasion! closed, theatre was still theatre. What this show did, was to remind us why that is such a good thing. It reminded so many why live theatre, at its best, simply cannot be beat. Don’t believe me? Come see it, June 11th-27th at the Miracle Theatre.
Now if you will excuse me, Victor Mack just told me to quit bogarting this hookah. Well, what he actually did was that Bewtiched-plus-a-half-gainer thing with his nose, but the meaning was clear enough. See you in the theatre.