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Friday, September 26, 2014

Don't miss The Play of the Year (so far): "The Invisible Hand" at ACT Theatre

Erwin Galan (back), Elijah Alexander, Connor Toms (seated) in The Invisible Hand (Chris Bennion)
The Invisible Hand
ACT Theatre
Through September 28, 2014


(printed in Seattle Gay News)

If terrorists ever decide to imitate "Art" instead of having "Art" imitate "Life" - and they see the play The Invisible Hand by Ayad Akhtar - well... the world is in big trouble! This intense, smart, gripping drama at ACT Theatre has a plot that includes describing how financial markets work, and it drives to a conclusion that makes the blood drain out of your face and dread fill your soul. 

The play begins some period of time into Nick Bright's (Connor Toms) captivity in a Pakistani cement block house. While we don't quite know how long he has been there, it has been long enough for him to teach a little English to the young guard, Dar (Erwin Galan) and help the guard make some money for his village selling potatoes. 

Suddenly, Bashir (Elijah Alexander) a lieutenant of the Imam (William Ontiveros) reminds Nick and Dar, both, that this is captivity, and fear and tension grip the stage. While actual violence is sparse, the threat of it remains a potent force throughout the remainder of the play. While journalist Daniel Pearl's beheading is referred to, the audience is quick to think of the recent beheadings in the news. 


Bashir, a lower-class Brit, gives us a sense of what might make such a man develop a devotion to a Pakistani cleric and upend his former life to become "radicalized." However, this group of kidnappers is supposed to be more benign, and the Imam is more altruistic, helping the poor and providing vaccines. But leaving that "we're good kidnappers" aside, they are more than willing to consider murder and other "usual" mayhem. 

Bashir and the Imam are a bit disappointed in the lack of importance Nick poses to the outside world. They had hoped to ransom him to the bank where he worked, but while they targeted the correct car that day, Nick's more prominent boss was not inside the car, Nick was. But Nick understands that he must somehow show his worth to his captors in order to free himself. The Imam declares that Nick will teach Bashir about the financial markets and that Nick must earn $10 million dollars for them in order to be freed. 

A telling moment has Bashir wondering what stops someone from manipulating the financial markets to do what he wants and making money. Nick describes the correction forces, "the invisible hand" that keeps stockbrokers from making the market go only in one direction. When Nick says that manipulating stocks is "illegal," it's clear that means nothing to Bashir. Why should he worry about legalities? And suddenly, we understand how dangerous Bashir's new knowledge could be to all of us! 

The four actors each do their characters proud. Three are called upon to speak in Pakistani and in heavily-accented English and master that well. Elijah Alexander has not been seen on Seattle stages (he seems to live mostly in Los Angeles), but he is electric. Perhaps his unfamiliarity makes his role that much more compelling to those who know Seattle actors. 

The scenes are short (and perhaps too choppy, but they certainly don't bore) and drive the story along a bit like a television show. There is a breathless feel that the audience is pulled along by. Director Allen Nause has the rhythms of the play well in hand. While many plays are hard to do in the round, in fact, it's a bit hard to imagine this play on a proscenium stage, since the round makes the audience feel more integrated into the production. 

Matthew Smucker's spare set design of first a cement block room and then a more substantial escape-proof bunker is completely believable. Brendan Patrick Hogan's sound design, especially during the action of the scenes, is haunting outside noises that are played at a barely audible level. 

One strength of the script is in the complexity of the global financial world explained succinctly. Once we understand how finances link us all together, we also must grapple with other ways we link in the world, and how our own behaviors, even buying food or gas, may end up supporting nations or governments we would never want our money to support. 

The experience watching the play is that this is The Play of the Year. It has high theatricality, great acting, solid technical support and a terrifically smart script. It's a memorable event and topical, contemporary, and politically charged. 

For more information, go to www.acttheatre.org or call 206-292-7676.