“The Invisible Hand”

“The Invisible Hand” follows the money

Artists Repertory Theatre's production of Ayad Akhtar's hostage thriller is sharp and thought-provoking

For a few years now, Allen Nause has talked about staging “The Invisible Hand” in Portland, back when he was artistic director of Artists Repertory Theatre, back before playwright Ayad Akhtar’s “Disgraced” won a Pulitzer Prize for drama, and right after he returned from a theater tour in Pakistan.

His idea was to bring two Pakistani actors he’d met on the tour to Portland to play in Akhtar’s hostage drama, as a way to extend his mission to connect with the acting community there. And having Pakistanis playing Pakistani characters seemed like a good idea, too. But first visa problems washed out a scheduled run of the play. Then Akhtar’s Pulitzer landed, and the Pakistani-American playwright wanted to do some serious revisions of the play. The world premiere landed elsewhere, the actors from Pakistan never made it to town, and Nause embraced a freelance career as a director and actor, after retiring his artistic directorship at Artists Rep.

But now “The Invisible Hand” has finally appeared!

Connor Toms and Imran Sheikh in ART's "The Invisible Hand"/Owen Carey

Connor Toms and Imran Sheikh in ART’s “The Invisible Hand”/Owen Carey

It’s a nice, sharp hostage thriller on the surface, but then it veers into the territory of political economics and deepens into something deliciously different. Pretty soon the audience, along with the terrorist Bashir (an enemy of the West and capitalism), is getting lessons in how futures work and selling short and the short history of how the American dollar became the globe’s dominant currency (thank you, or curse you, Bretton Woods). And finally what keeps the American dollar on top? The “invisible hand” of capitalism. So, right, a little metaphysics creeps in there, too.


Artists Rep adjusts its season, postpones “The Invisible Hand”

Artists Repertory Theatre adds "The Quality of Life" to its 2013-14 season

With opening night of Artists Repertory Theatre’s “The Big Meal” hurtling toward us on Saturday, we’ll pause for a moment to consider an adjustment Damaso Rodriguez has made to the end of Artists Rep’s season. The company announced that it was delaying its production of Pulitzer winner Ayad Akhtar’s new play “The Invisible Hand” to Fall of 2014 and replacing it with Jane Anderson’s “The Quality of Life.”

Because the production of “The Invisible Hand,” secured by former artistic director Allen Nause, has been delayed a couple of times, I worried that maybe it was going to drift from view entirely, especially after Akhtar’s Pulitzer last year for “Disgraced.” Visa problems for the Pakistani actors that Nause wanted to star in the play and fundraising issues combined to stymie the show previously. But maybe Akhtar’s new success would lead him to a bigger theater for the premiere of “The Invisible Hand”?

As usual, a cluster of events led to the change, according to Rodriguez.

The visa deadline for the two Pakistani actors Nause had met in his foreign adventures was looming and so was a request to Actors Equity to waive its rules to allow them to play in an Equity house. In dealing with bureaucracies of whatever sort, sometimes it’s best to allow for ample extra time.

Maybe more importantly though, Akhtar decided to re-write the play “from page one,” Rodriguez said. (A version of “The Invisible Hand” premiered at the new play festival of The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis in 2012.) Akhtar was involved in a possible Broadway run for “Disgraced,” which made finishing in time for the opening a little iffy, and Rodriguez wanted to be “involved in the re-write.”

Finally, Nause found a co-producer for “The Invisible Hand” during a meeting in Seattle with Kurt Beattie, A Contemporary Theatre’s artistic director. The show will open in Seattle in August and then move down to Artists Rep with the same cast. Because ACT and Artists Rep are alike in stage sensibility, joining forces seems reasonable, and as Rodriguez points out, “More interaction between Seattle and Portland makes sense.” The combination also offers a new play significant exposure in two good theater cities, a chance to work out the kinks before a possible New York production, and financial returns in the same ballpark as those from a larger regional theater.

Michael Mendelson and Linda Alper in "Ten Chimneys"/Owen Carey

Michael Mendelson and Linda Alper in “Ten Chimneys”/Owen Carey

So, moving “The Invisible Hand” out of this season wasn’t a hard decision for Rodriguez. Neither was making “The Quality of Life” its replacement this season. Anderson, best known as the writer of “The Baby Dance” and as a television writer (“Mad Men”), though she’s written several plays, wrote “The Quality of Life” in 2007, and it had several productions, including Arena Stage (in Washington, DC) and ACT in San Francisco. “I saw the original cast in the play at the Geffen,” Rodriguez says about the LA production. He’d read a new version, and thought of company’s resident artists LInda Alper and Michael Mendelson for the roles of the northern California couple facing the husband’s fatal disease in the company of Midwestern couple with entirely different values.

Alper’s selection as a resident artist, by the way, was another significant addition to ART’s core. Alper has been a big star at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival over the years, playing the great Shakespearean roles for women while developing a subtle yet powerful approach to contemporary work. She appeared in the excellent “Ten Chimneys” last season with Michael Mendelson, directed by Rodriguez. Alper has also worked at Portland Center Stage, and the resident artist designation solidifies her ties to Portland. Alper created a body of work as writer/translator/lyricist in Ashland, too, so maybe she will do the same here.



A few other bits of Artists Rep news…the inclusion of Anderson makes three women playwrights in the schedule this season: “I look at the season and I’m glad that we’ve got three,” Rodriguez said. “I look at next season and I’d like to do better and I’d like to do better with directors, too”…the holiday double bill of one-acts will be directed by Louanne Moldovan and Rusty Tennant, who have assistant directed at the company in the past…the company landed the world premiere of Amy Freed’s “The Monster-Builder” in part because of Rodriguez and Freed’s mutual relationship with director Art Manke, an old friend of Freed’s and mentor of Rodriguez’s…Rodriguez thinks Artists Rep can be more involved in producing new work: “This is a great city and theater to come and safely do your work and develop your play…my story on Allen Nause’s foreign travels for American Theater magazine.

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