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Monday, September 22, 2014


Cast Photo - Gun Silhouette
Photo: Tim Durkan 
My evening at ACT Theatre, in Seattle, to see the West Coast premier of Ayad Akhtar's play "The Invisible Hand," began in an odd way. The older gentleman sitting next to me looked down at the stage and made a grim prediction as he stared at the square enclosure, made of what looked cement blocks, represented a prison cell in Pakistan. It contained a table, chairs, and a cot covered with a filthy mattress, pillow, and blanket.The man said to his wife something like, "This could make me uncomfortable." 

It turned out that, as a child, he had been trapped in a cave for hours, in total darkness, a fact he believed led to his lifelong claustrophobia, so the idea of imprisonment triggered those feelings. Little did he know, however, how prophetic his words would turn out to be, for both the characters in the play and audience. There on the stage, we would soon see a cast of four build the structure of an intense plot of this thriller, one brick of drama at a time, using moments of poignancy and even humor as mortar. For two hours, it held us captive.

Connor Toms cuffed 
Photo: Chris Bennion
The story features Nick Bright (Connors Tom), a hotshot employee of a major American investment bank, who has been kidnapped by a militant Islamic group and held for a ransom no one is interested in paying. Therefore, he ends up in a situation where he must put his financial knowledge and talents to work to invest in the stock market on behalf on his captors, while earning his own ransom money.

Connor Toms and Elijah Alexander with gun 
Photo: Chris Bennion 
Those captors are Bashir (Elijah Alexander), Dar (Erwin Galan) and Imam Saleem (William Ontiveros), but another player in this story, and the source of its title, is "the invisible hand," a term from the world of finance. It refers to a theoretical and unseen force in the marketplace. The idea is that individual investors, motivated by only their own best interest, unintentionally benefit the larger society, because their decisions create a free market based on simple supply and demand. Supposedly, when trade exists in this state, in the absence of governmental interference, the market will find its own point of equilibrium and wealth distribution through competition and price adjustments to meet what the market will bear. 

William Ontiveros grips Elijah Alexander 
Photo: Chris Bennion 
In this drama, morality itself becomes a free market that fluctuates with individual agendas and motivations. We watch it morph into something we didn't expect, an entity that creates its own justification for existence. Throw in a case of Stockholm syndrome, plus a twisted element of enjoyment in this mutual pursuit of profit, and you have the makings of seductive monster of a plot, a situation growing ever more out of control, with horrifying consequences. The young American financial wizard must face his own contributions to this outcome. People in the audience had to face their own feelings about money and personal gain versus the good of a society.

online strategy with Connor Toms
Photo: Chris Bennion
As usual, ACT offers the highest quality acting, stage design, lighting, sound, and special effects, but the gem in that setting that sparkled most brightly for me was the performance by Elijah Alexander, as Bashir, the one who becomes the unexpected student of Bright's financial brilliance, as well as the other half of a relationship teetering on the brink of true friendship. That relationship is repeatedly and confusingly knocked back into one of captive and captor when it tips too far. Power shifts from one to the other in a most fascinating way.

Bashir grew up in the U.K. and speaks with a Cockney accent, facts that give him a whole different dimension and work to dissolve some stereotypes. In so many ways, he is a most likable guy, at least at first. In fact, as part of the irony of politics and war, we can see the common humanity among all four characters and the simple truth that all people want the same basic things—security, work, food, and family. I was drawn into age-old issues of competition and conflict among the planet's people and how money can sway convictions.

Elijah Alexander and Connor Toms and comics 
Photo: Chris Bennion 
Alexander's natural and spellbinding acting brings Bashir to life as someone we will not forget. Ontiveros did an excellent job as Imam Saleem, and Galan's character, Dar, contributed additional humanity to the story. Connor Tom, as Nick Bright, performed best during the difficult scenes that involved pain and anguish, but don't think the play is entirely dark. Just like real life, it is experienced with a mixture of emotions, which is part of the point of the whole thing. Mankind exists in a self-made prison built of competition, prejudice, fear, and greed made tolerable by compassion and humor.

I highly recommend "The Invisible Hand." The man sitting next to me was right in predicting that it would be uncomfortable at times, but it is also deeply thought provoking and moving, so worth the price of a ticket. 

You have only until Sunday, September 28, to see this most excellent production, so be sure to reserve your seats today. Here is the link to the online box office. Please be aware that, since the play deals with terrorism, it involves violence and adult language, so is not suitable for children under 14, according to the theater.

You can read a fascinating interview with playwright Ayad Akhtar here.

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