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Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Theatre review: The Invisible Hand is as powerful as it is chilling

Absolute power may corrupt absolutely, but in Ayad Akhtar’s The Invisible Hand it is the almighty dollar that feeds both.

As the Panama Papers continue to make headlines around the world, confirming that the 99 percent are falling further behind, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Ayad Akhtar amps up the drama in a surprisingly quiet, but nonetheless powerful exploration of the connection between terrorism and money. And while the notion of terrorists funding themselves through the world’s investment markets is scary enough, Akhtar makes it all very human, and arguably more terrifying, by examining the nature of greed as well.

In The Invisible Hand, Nick Bright has been mistaken for his more powerful Citibank boss and abducted by a band of terrorists in Pakistan. Setting a $10 million ransom on his head, Nick knows that Citibank will never agree to such a payment. His only way out is to work with the terrorists, using his knowledge to earn his release.

On the surface, The Invisible Hand plays out as a bit of a thriller as Nick negotiates and is forced to be complicit with his captors in an effort to keep himself alive, but it is what is playing beneath that is most compelling (and subsequently terrifying).

One of the more subtle storylines, but nonetheless devastating, is the metamorphosis of the young soldier Dar, who is tasked to watch over Bright. From the first scene in which he clips Bright’s fingernails through handcuffed hands, and good-naturedly boasts of making a killing in the local potato market, over the course of the play’s two hours, Conor Wylie’s transformation from friendly abductor to full-on terrorist is shattering.

Equally transformed is Munish Sharma as Bashir, the British born member of the terrorist group who is not only tasked with fulfilling Bright’s initial stock trades, but must also learn the tricks of the trade from his prisoner. Sharma runs the entire gamut here, from initial swagger to a reverse Stockholm syndrome scenario where he connects with Bright on a human level, to full-on greed when he realizes just how much money is at stake and the power it affords. There is delicious irony here as the anti-American, anti-capitalist slowly transforms into what he professes to abhor the most.

As Imam Saleem, Shaker Paleja is equally as chilling. Calling the shots (sometimes quite literally), his proclamations of using the money for good is quickly replaced by his own greed. That he will eventually get his due is no huge surprise, but when the tables are turned it is nonetheless jarring as it exposes the ever-changing nature of power for those that control the wealth.

Craig Erickson effectively balances Bright’s terror with an obvious need to be part of the action, and welcomes the opportunity to both share his knowledge.  While it may initially be for self-preservation, under director Richard Wolfe’s cool hand, there is an undercurrent in Erickson’s performance where he relishes in the challenge of simply making enough money.

David Robert’s set is evocative and Alan Brodie’s lighting design is at times gorgeous, which creates a wonderful contrast to the reality of what is taking place.  Gordon Grdina’s original music, used largely in transitions, is spot-on.

Even as Akhtar spends a great deal of time in what seems like an introduction to economics and the real-world strategies employed by people like Bright, the underlying tension keeps things taut and interesting. Like Akhtar’s Disgraced, which made my list as the best theatre in 2015 when it played the Arts Club, The Invisible Hand is just as smart, and just as relevant. It too will keep the conversations going long after the curtain.

The Invisible Hand by Ayad Akhtar. Directed by Richard Wolfe. A Cultch presentation of a Pi Theatre production. On stage at The Cultch (1895 Venables St, Vancouver) until April 23. Visit for tickets and information.

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