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Ian Merrill Peakes & Maboud Ebrahimzadeh

 

Kat is a white feminist playwright

 

Melissa is a white cis woman, a new play enthusiast, a feminist. She craves theatre that connects urgent ideas to human stories. She’s been thinking a lot about different theatre’s missions.

 

Kat

So, what was in your pockets going into this show?

Melissa

I didn’t bring much in with me when I saw the show, aside from generally mixed feelings about Exile, but going into this conversation, it has been a little while since I saw it, so my response might reflect that distance. I saw the show two days after opening. How about you?

Kat

Well, I have a Muslim friend who has been suffering some discrimination recently, so I was feeling touchy about how Muslims would be portrayed. But I tend to root for Theater Exile, because two of my favorite Philadelphia shows were there: The Aliens and That Pretty Pretty.

Melissa

I loved The Aliens too, which was directed by Invisible Hand’s Matt Pfeiffer.

Kat

I’m going to just start by saying that I thought this script was really boring.

Melissa

The script is kind of exciting for me, but I’m primed to look for those kind of plays, because I work with them a lot. People sitting around talking about their ideas with some technical terms that need to be worked around.

Kat

I have got to hear why you thought the script was exciting.

Melissa

I think I was fascinated by this new spin on American-Middle Eastern relations. The idea of capitalism as a form of dominance–which I’ve heard before but not in this setting–was exciting to me. “Whoever controls the currency,” that was fascinating. I thought it was tightly plotted as well, the tension of the writing was clear to me. I think it’s a taut but talky play with big ideas–much like Disgraced from the same playwright (Ayad Akhtar), but I actually liked the ideas of this a little more. What was your impression?

Kat

Wow. It’s like we saw different plays! In general, I hate scripts where two people sit around interrogating ideas. I think it’s untheatrical and holds the audience hostage by taking something that’s supposed to be participatory (a discussion) and making it didactic. So even if I thought the ideas in this play were in any way new or interesting (which I don’t) I would still hate the writing, but when a writer splits himself in two to argue with himself, he has at least the responsibility to make both sides of the argument equally compelling. I saw a show where an American schools a Muslim guy, while the Muslim guy takes notes. Literally.

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The cast of Invisible Hand  (Photo:Theatreexile.org)

Melissa

That’s very, very true. The white American teaches the Muslim how to be better at what he does.

Kat

And I don’t think there’s any real tension to it. Bashir isn’t resistant to learning how to play these markets, or questioning it in any way (although earlier in the play he points out that earning interest is forbidden by the Koran. A lot of people interpret the Koran as also forbidding participating in the stock market.) He’s just brought along by the obvious correctness of the of the American’s thesis. It’s like he has no values or considerations of his own.

Melissa

I don’t know if I agree with that. I think that what Bashir is interested in is learning how to game a system that has been used to oppress people who culturally can’t fight back. And the American’s thesis also works. And now Bashir has the language and tools to see how this really complicated and nebulous system has been used to manipulate his comrades. Bashir sees the massive impact of these machinations which he’s always noticed–but now he knows how they happen

Kat

Is he a radicalized Muslim who has never thought of the power of global capitalism, somehow?

Melissa

No, I think he knows about the power of global capitalism; if I recall correctly, that contributed to why he initially abducts Nick. But the things that Nick works within are vastly complicated, intentionally so I think, because otherwise anyone could game that system to gain power. And the people who benefit from capitalism don’t want everyone to benefit from capitalism.

Kat

But is that news to Bashir? As an idea?

Melissa

I don’t think so. Bashir knows a lot about how the United States’ economic power has been used to secure its dominance. So I guess I see what you mean in that there’s no tension, if Bashir already knows that. But I think Akhtar writes with the assumption that his audience doesn’t, or at least isn’t thinking about it on such an immediately politicized scale.

Kat

Well, and I find that a little silly. But to say that Bashir doesn’t is condescending. This is a character who I’m supposed to believe gave up everything to fight for what he believes. But the character isn’t some bored kid who just wants to destroy stuff. And he’s not any kind of seriously devout Muslim. If he were, he would be considering the ethical ramifications of at the very least the way he talks about women and at most the murder of innocent people.

Melissa

I hadn’t thought about that, honestly. I think that is a pretty major blind spot for me; I don’t know a lot about Islam or Pakistani culture. I don’t know if he’s motivated by Islam, or if he’s Muslim and profoundly objects to the way Muslims in the Middle East are treated by the United States, and how they are bound under an economic system which they can’t engage in based on their beliefs. Imam Salim wants to make his community better. He presents himself as someone who takes all strides to make his community better, and that means lifting it out of the burden of a system that his community has no hope of succeeding within. That’s what Bashir responds to.

Kat

Right. So is Bashir motivated by wanting a better life for Muslims?

Melissa

Maybe “freedom” more than “a better life,” which means being able to operate outside of the dictums imposed by the United States and other Western countries? Or if not to operate outside, then to have more control within those dictums?

Kat

Yeah. Series of question marks. That’s why I don’t like the writing. Bashir is barely even a straw man.

Melissa

I hadn’t thought of it that way; I think watching it, I felt like I was following each character as an embodiment of their argument. That for me was the source of my disconnection from Invisible Hand. The ideas thing, I can follow and even get behind, because I’m used to that kind of play and I find the ideas exciting. But it felt like there were two different plays happening within that production.

I felt like J Paul Nicholas (Imam Salim) and Maboud Ebrahimzadeh (Bashir) were playing the ideas, the cerebral; I felt like they were calculating and fueled by their arguments, which is how the writing feels. Ian Merrill Peakes, on the other hand, was performing in a muscular play. His Nick Bright was driven by the fear of his situation, he became more and more ragged, his decisions feeling less calculated and more like desperation, which I don’t think is wrong necessarily, but I do think felt weird to watch in this play. His performance was good, but it was happening almost in another world.

Kat

I totally agree with you, but I blame the script. I think all of the characters were written thinly– flesh hung on ideas. But what’s great about being the white guy stock character is, it carries with it the weight of the white guy hero.

Melissa

That’s a good point.

Kat

What matters to Nick Bright is always going to matter, because it culturally matters.

Melissa

Right.

Kat

Bashir can be a cardboard terrorist or not. The thing is, Akhtar didn’t give Imam Salim, Bashir, and sure as hell not Dar any stakes.

Melissa

Yeah Dar was a big problem for me as well. I think that came from Akhtar’s choice to have us stay in the bunker–to limit our experience as the audience to whatever Nick sees and what the other characters bring in and choose to share with him. I don’t know why Dar is there, I don’t know what Dar’s life is like outside of what he decides to tell us. And that’s frustrating because people like Dar are ostensibly the people Bashir and Imam Salim want to help. But maybe that’s part of it too? That Dar is still silenced even among the people who claim to want to help him, because ultimately (and predictably, as we see by the end of the play) power corrupts? People fall into hierarchies no matter what?

Kat

You are a generous audience member. I want you in the audience for everything I write ever.

Melissa

Ha.

Kat

But he didn’t give Nick Bright any stakes either.

Melissa

Why does his situation not count as stakes?

Kat

Because I didn’t care if he got rescued. He said he missed his wife and kid, but who were they? More ideas.

Like in an action movie. If I thought he were a person, I would care what happened to him. The stakes also feel cardboard. It’s like in an improv class when someone who’s not good at improv brings out a gun. And they’re like “now there’s drama!”

Melissa

I don’t know, I think that being afraid of getting executed is a pretty dramatic stake. Maybe I don’t like Nick, and maybe the desperation Ian Merrill Peakes brought didn’t necessarily ring true to me, but I can buy the severity of the situation as enough to fuel Nick.

Kat

I think being afraid of getting executed is high stakes for a person. I don’t think fear that this man would be executed was high stakes for the play. I cared if he got shot about as much as I cared if Salim got shot. Which was not much. As an audience member, I want to care what happens to the people. Which is probably why I don’t like idea plays in the first place.

Melissa

What did you think of the design?

Kat

Overall the set didn’t work for me. And I spent a lot of time trying to figure out why.

Melissa

The set was pretty unremarkable for me. I appreciated its utilitarianism, but aesthetically it was kind of blocky. Honestly it looked similar to a lot of the other sets I’ve seen from Colin McIlvaine. It had a lightbox, it had earth tones, it had the capability for stage magic (the expansion). Like it was fine, it worked, but it wasn’t wildly imaginative.

Kat

Flat. It didn’t have texture. And I get that it was a cell block.

Melissa

Yeah, it was flat. It’s a cell block but it’s also like… just a room. It’s a bit unspecific

Kat

I think if you were imprisoned in a room, it would have some kind of character to you. Some small nuance that mattered. That specificity in the design might have helped to humanize Nick.

Melissa

Instead of like “well there’s a window because Bashir needs to see the drones, well there’s a blocky hole in the wall because he needs to escape, well it needs to expand because he gets moved to a new room.” The set did its job. It did not capture me

Kat

I agree. But what really bugged me were the props, especially the AK 47 and the shackles. They felt flimsy, like if the actors mishandled them, they’d break,  which did not help me believe he was in danger.

Melissa

I thought the costuming was pretty good though. I’m thinking back and something that stuck with me is just how fucked up and shitty Nick looked toward the end. There was also something affecting about Bashir coming in at the end in this resplendent white, the leather jacket discarded.

Kat

I loved Bashir’s western jackets over a thobe. The windbreaker or whatever he had at first–so specific to that character.

Melissa

Yeah I thought that was great. A lot of smart choices from Julia Poisez. Masha Tsmiring’s lighting design toward the end worked toward that too. Combined with Nick’s costume degradation, it told a really specific story. For me it set the tone for the tension and tragedy of the play: the grimness, the half-light, the grime.

Kat

I agree with that. I particularly loved the first light cue. With just a little moonlight coming in. It was very precise. And this is so weird and small, but the set changes were really efficient and happened in total darkness so you could always be surprised by the next scene.

Melissa

I don’t know how I felt about the sound. Like the jump scare of the transition music, it affected me but I’m not sure why. Yes I jumped, but I don’t know if I needed them to let me know that what Nick was doing was risky and his situation was dire.

Kat

The composition itself was great for the play–this interweaving of Middle Eastern music with tech-y sounds that invoked the internet trading. But it was too loud and intense for what was going on in the play. Every scene change had this dum dum DUMMM! quality that the play wasn’t earning.

Melissa

Like Law & Order.

Kat

Exactly. But also the dogs and drones were doing what the set was doing.

Melissa

It did its job but it was unspecific, in contrast to the composition.

Kat

Exactly. That last moment when the drone strike happens and this light blooms and then disappears was really nice though. With the sound.

Melissa

Yes, that was an affecting moment.

Kat

What did you think about acting? You said a little about Ian Merrill Peakes.

Melissa

I thought Maboud Ebrahimzadeh was great as Bashir. I thought he and J Paul Nicholas did the best at conveying the script they way I read it.  

Kat

Yeah, I found Ebrahimzadeh the most compelling. He had lots of great, personalizing little ticks like taking off his cap or balling up his fists.

Melissa

Peakes was great at what he was doing, I just didn’t think what he was doing and what Ebrahimzadeh was doing belonged in the same production.

Kat

Now that you mention it, that’s right.

Melissa

We’re also automatically going to bring so much more to our reading of Nick’s character than we will to Bashir’s, because most audiences are going to follow the American trojan horse, so Ebrahimzadeh‘s rendering of Bashir overshining Peakes’ of Nick is particularly remarkable, I think.

Kat

That’s a great point. And he did it by being human. I was totally rooting for him. Now that I think of it, I guess I was rooting for a terrorist. So good work, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh.

Melissa

I thought Anthony Adair did well with what he had.

Kat

I agree. Lots of specific choices for what’s basically a servant part.

Melissa

I found Dar to be kind of frustrating and simpering, but I thought the moment when they take out the Imam was really specific for Dar. I saw a real physical change in him.

Kat

And these three two-dimensional characters still don’t provide sufficient balance to the two-dimensional American hero. Ugh, I know we’re talking about acting, but every time I think of Bashir saying “I looked up your thesis on my iPhone” I cringe so hard. I hate bits about how foreigners have iPhones, or eat McDonalds or whatever. It’s so smug. And Bashir fanboying Bright’s thesis is so ridiculous.

Also, I would be totally remiss as a man-hating feminazi if I did not point out that this play is extremely broey. I’d always rather see women in the story, but I get that not every story can have women in it, and I totally see why this one wouldn’t. Still, I could do without the tired-assed Betty and Veronica bullshit. I guess the point was that whether we’re captive bro or captor bro, we’re not that different after all because we can all locker room talk about women. But it’s as boring as it is alienating. Same to the early bits where Bashir threatens Nick by implying that he would like to rape his wife. Understandable. Forgettable. We’re all friends in the end.

Melissa

Oh word, I could also have been fine without that. Talk about sports or something.

Kat

Right? Fucking soccer. You live in Pakistan, apparently.

Melissa

What did you think of Matt Pfeiffer’s direction?

Kat

Well. I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s too much to expect directing to make that script compelling. I feel like I want some kind of triumph over the material, which isn’t really fair. He did the director things. It was a small room, but he kept it moving in there.

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Matt Pfeiffer (Photo: Theatreexile.org)

Melissa

I think that Pfeiffer did well, I just think he approached the play differently from what was written, and I think he pushed the pathos of Nicks’ plight.

Kat

Huh. I was pinning that on the writing. But that makes sense. Do you think that’s part of why Bashir felt like a straw man?

Melissa

No, I think a lot of that is the writing. I think Pfeiffer highlighted Nick, which made the ideas-driven character of Bashir feel like a straw man–but I also think that’s how Bashir is written. I think Pfeiffer tried to coax a believable relationship out of Bashir and Nick.

Kat

Right. He does well with male relationships, he did it in The Aliens and Straight White Men.

Melissa

And I think you can see Bashir softening and trusting and maybe liking Nick. But I think a lot of what you’re seeing is in the writing. Pfeiffer highlighted what’s in the script for each character, and since Nick’s circumstances have more of an emotional thrust–a product of the script, since he’s the only one we ever see alone and having an internal life, since our experience of the play is on his terms–that’s what Pfeiffer focused on. I think Pfeiffer is really good at honing into the emotional circumstances of his characters, and connecting that to the arc of the play. It’s what makes him exceptional at realism.

Kat

That makes sense.

Melissa

The result was two different plays in the same production. I don’t really know why Exile did Invisible Hand–apart from the quality of the script (in my opinion), it doesn’t feel particularly in their mission, which I think of as human stories with messy or gritty emotional cores. I think that’s partially why their production was really muddled for me.

Kat

It definitely felt more like InterAct material.

Melissa

Ultimately, I walked out feeling that many of the composite parts of what I had seen were really good and skillful, but the way they came together didn’t form a coherent production. There was a lot of good that went into that–Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, Ian Merrill Peakes, the costumes, the lights, Matt’s direction and for me, Ayad Akhtar’s script–but for whatever reason the alchemy wasn’t there. And you?

Kat

I appreciate the competency of the performances–particularly Maboud Ebrahimzadeh’s– the directing and the costume design. But there was no chance I was going to enjoy any production of that script. Between not being the audience for it, and having a really strong aversion to that kind of play, and finding the message  and the story used to convey it extremely condescending, it wasn’t for me.

 

Questions For People Involved in the Production

Why did Theatre Exile choose this play, which feels a little outside its usual mission?

How would you characterize Bashir’s motivations?

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