Tuesday, June 14, 2016

"The Invisible Hand"

The Invisible Hand
Ayad Akhtar

Craig Marker, Jason Kapoor & Pomme Koch
For many of the Popes of centuries past, the televangelists of the late twentieth century, or the ISIS leaders in Iraq and Syria of 2016, dogmatic and self-righteous religious zealousness appears often to lead to great accumulations of wealth at the expense of others.  The similarities of religious and financial devotion and pursuits are central in Ayad Aktar’s The Invisible Hand, a title that refers to Adam Smith’s coined, eighteenth-century phrase to describe the unobservable market force that enables a free market to reach and maintain equilibrium.  That same title might also apply to the power strict religious doctrines and their leaders often seem to have over their faithful’s minds and lives, as if the followers were guided by some unseen hand that could turn also around and strike them down at any moment they wander too far outside the dogma.  The tension between being guided and being controlled by the joint forces of religion and finance is central in Ayad Aktar’s spine-tingling, sweat-producing tale of suspense, especially when political in-fighting enters the mix.  With masterful direction that keeps the audience on the edge of their seats and an astounding ensemble that give award-deserving performances, Marin Theatre Company presents a don’t miss, must-be-seen The Invisible Hand.

Nick Bright is a banker who understands how to manipulate and ride the ups and downs of the markets to make others money – and seemingly himself since he has $3.3 million tucked away in offshore accounts on the Cayman Islands.  Unfortunately as the play opens, he is being held prisoner by a Pakistani, Islamic, militant group who has kidnapped him, hoping his bank will cough up $10 million for his return.  Getting no such response, its impatient followers and his guards seem more than ready to make Nick a dead example of what happens when the payoff is nil.  However, Nick desperately but convincingly suggests he could take his own $3.3 million and turn it into the ten (or more) demanded by playing the world finance markets.  His captors, who claim through their Iman they want the money to repair roads in poor communities, agree to give him a chance to raise his own ransom.

Pomme Koch as Bashir & Craig Marker as Nick
What follows is at times almost like a university class in economics.  As Nick pumps instructions into one captor at a computer keyboard -- a young, handsome, and often hot-headed Bashir -- terms like puts, futures, options, and shorts are bantered around with much urgency, seriousness, and speed.  Bashir begins to get excited over his new assignment to work with his latest prisoner, especially when the first day renders a payoff of 700,000 rupees.  Bashir’s earlier, expressed anger of everything this smart, young, American banker represents (“You and your fucking interest, eating up the world like cancer”) turns into a personal zeal and drive that is palpable.  “I can’t get enough of this stuff ... I kinda wish I’d gone to uni for this stuff,” he blurts as the two would-be enemies act more and more like pals playing an online video game.  Bashir learns a lot from Nick and seems both to relish it and to understand it, especially taking to heart that “Bulls make money; bears make money; pigs get slaughtered.”  He also comes to understand, as will become ever more evident, Nick’s conclusion that “One thing that doesn’t change about people ... When you get money, you want more.”

But in this world of high-stake finance, politics and religion are equal if not more powerful players, too.  With drones humming in the background of the cinderblock cell and occasional bomb blasts detected, even among the three kidnappers loyalties and hierarchy continually shifts.  Sheer moments of terror punctuate the market madness as tempers rise between captor and captive and between the captors themselves.  Where is the money actually going and for what causes?  Who is profiting, the poor or ... ?  What defines who is Iman and who is not; and does it really have any thing to do with religion?  In the middle of it all is Nick, fighting for his life while also at times having the time of this life playing this game of high finance in the world of commodities like potatoes.  One minute, he acts as he is in control; the next, he is yet again facing imminent, terrifying death.

Craig Marker & Barzim Akhavan
Bay Area favorite, Craig Marker, has once again upped his game as a talented actor as he takes on the role of Nick Bright.  The breadth of emotions he displays is mind-blowing.  Trembling full of tears and screams in sheer fright as a gun clicks at his head, yelling and stomping about in passionate anger at those who hold his life in their hands, or gleefully prancing up and down with arms flailing as he dictates to his partner Bashir a map to fortune are only some of many examples of the eclectic, acting output displayed. 

But Mr. Marker’s is only one of four stellar performances.  As Bashir, Pomme Koch is also riveting in every respect.  Cruel and heartless turns into collegial and collegiate and then back to calculating and callous.  His supposed motives jerk wildly about as much as his moods and are as mysterious at times as what is really going on inside the mind behind those deep, dark eyes. 

Jason Kapoor as Dar & Craig Marker as Nick
Equally powerful are Barzim Akhavan as the tall, clad-in-white Iman Saleem and Jason Kapoor as the lap-dog underling, Dar.  Each has moments of conversing with signs of sympathy and even intrigue with their captured American, and each turns quickly into a fountain of hatred, revenge, and venom against him and all those who have come before him, those “wealthy Americans looting our country.”

Jasson Minadakis has left nothing to chance in his direction of these fine actors and this tight script.  The shifts and twists of the plot, the alliances made and broken as well as hints of humor and blasts of deadly alarm flow with a sequence that is quick-paced yet slow enough to absorb to the bone.  Clearly, this director has discovered how to milk every ounce of this powerful script and how to ensure each actor digs deep to discover newfound territories.

The sullen, stark cell with one lone, barred window serves as prison by night and a trading floor of sorts by day.  Kat Conley’s design, including a doorway that opens to a sobering outside, is just the right mixture of stark and scary.  York Kennedy’s lighting casts the needed corner shadows, sudden blackouts, and harsh spotlights needed to fill out the scene.  Far-off sounds of fighting and overhead surveillance craft remind us of the world outside the imprisoned walls, thanks to Chris Houston’s excellent sound design.  Callie Floor has dressed each character in convincing garb of the region and their position within it and has insured we understand the horrible and worsening conditions Nick Bright is undergoing, by the state of his clothes alone.

Who is victim and who is victimizing is not always clear in Ayad Akhtar’s play.  Who is the winner and what does it mean to win in this war of finances and religion and politics is similarly muddled.  Few answers and many questions are raised in watching this gripping story that could be similar to one relayed in the news at any time in our present world.  Ayad Akhtar and Jasson Minadakis partner as playwright and director to present a superb cast in Marin Theatre Company’s thought-provoking The Invisible Hand.

Rating: 5 E

Marin Theatre Company continues its extended, Bay Area premiere of Ayad Akhtar’s The Invisible Hand through July 3, 2016 at 397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley.  Tickets are available online at https://tickets.marintheatre.org/Online/ or by calling 415-388-5208.

Photo: Kevin Berne

1 comment:

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