Theatre Exile’s production of THE INVISIBLE HAND features an all-star creative team, including director Matt Pfieffer and actors Ian Peakes as Nick Bright, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh as Bashir, and Anthony Mustafa Adair as Dar. Henrik Eger conducted interviews with all four. In this interview, we hear Maboud Ebrahimzadeh’s thoughts on this provocative new work. [Studio X, 1340 S. 13th Street] May 12-June 5, 2016; theatreexile.org.
Henrik Eger: What was your first response reading the script of The Invisible Hand?
Maboud Ebrahimzadeh: I thought it was brilliant. I had read Disgraced a few years back and was enthralled by Akhtar’s specificity, though the play itself left a lot of questions unanswered for me. And while it was a step forward in the diversity and representation of characters of color conversation, it didn’t quite do it for me. The Invisible Hand seems to take many of the same questions and handle them with the grace and specificity that Akhtar is becoming known for and surpass my expectations. I think it answers many of the questions that were left unanswered in Disgraced and further examines the perceptions we in the US have about war-torn regions like the one in The Invisible Hand and the circumstances that have led to the actions in the play.
Henrik: What did you bring to this challenging play as an actor?
Maboud: My family and I emigrated from Iran just after the revolution [after a few years in Germany, his family moved to the U.S.]. I think one of the wonderful bits of nuance I was able to mine and merge between myself and the character was the sense of belonging, or the lack thereof.
Bashir is a deeply complex character and, as I see it, is one of the millions of people caught between cultures. As an Iranian growing up mostly in the United States, I often had trouble understanding my own identity. I was trying to assimilate into a culture and society that wouldn’t have me, and from a place where, if I were to return, would see me as an outsider as well. This is not a particularly unique situation but a deeply complex one that breeds a lot of self-doubt.
Bashir’s journey also includes a tumultuous family life that has also added to the stress of being between two worlds and of none. So having no feeling of safety, acceptance, or home can draw a person down some dark paths that one wouldn’t normally expect.
Professionally, I’ve been granted a wonderful series of opportunities which let me explore darker parts of myself without the risk normally involved in doing so. I think it requires a deep understanding and fearlessness to surprise yourself when staring down into that abyss and facing the horrible actions that a story might require of you, and I’ve had a series of directors who don’t shy away from it and provide encouragement to find those hard to reach places where morality is about as clear as a penny in a muck filled pond. And when I do, they don’t judge me for it. I’ve been very lucky.
Henrik: Going into the rehearsal process, what were the toughest parts for you?
Maboud: So much of Bashir is right there in the text. Akhtar has done a marvelous job of dropping delicious moments that tear a person in two in plain sight and still giving enough room to the actor to fill in those gaps. Reconciling two varying motives, forcing a person’s hand, these kinds of moments are especially difficult because he doesn’t let you choose one or the other. He just makes you hang there in uncertainty. And it’s fantastic.
Staying true to those moments where the text doesn’t allow you to move one way or another but makes you want to, that translates to an audience and with the help of Matt Pfeiffer, we were able to stand on that knife’s edge and let them take the journey with us. To show the audience what a character is feeling is pretty easy, but to make the audience feel it too, that’s a bit more difficult.
With this play, it’s incredibly important to maintain the ambiguity and difficulty in these moments and it presented a great and fun challenge for us.
Henrik: What did you bring to a play in which cultures, economies, religions, worldviews, and personalities clash in terms of your own cultural, economic, religious, ideological, and/or behavioral background?
Maboud: Bashir is one of those special cases where there was a fair bit of overlap, specifically, in the personal and cultural life side of things. One thing that strikes me is the history presented in the play in regards to Bretton Woods [“the landmark system for monetary and exchange rate management established in 1944, developed at the United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference held in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire”] and an argument that Bashir makes in the play, that “all those years the world was looking up to you—my parents’ generation, they thought America was the greatest place on the planet . . .” I found this quite intriguing and it made me wonder at times about the unintended consequences of billing America as “the land of opportunity.”
People came to the US in search of a better life, often from broken places. It gave people a sense of hope that there was something better for them somewhere else. And in some ways, it was a total con. Modern America, for as much as I love it, doesn’t hold up the same promise it once offered. And this notion has bred a fair amount of resentment, which I think Bashir associates with—[leading to] a type of selfishness in people to leave their homes, instead of bettering their home countries.
Henrik: Looking back, what are some of the most rewarding parts of the play for you now?
Maboud: I’m going to broaden this a bit and say that beyond the reward of diving headlong into this play, the opportunity to work with the folks on this production was the most rewarding thing. The level of joy, vigor, intelligence, and passion that Matt Pfeiffer, Ian Peakes, Paul Nicholas, Anthony Adair, the design team, and the production crew brought into the room made for an amazing experience. This was a great time.
Henrik: What surprised you about the play and/or your own evolution during the rehearsal process and the performances?
Maboud: Without giving too much away, to the point that Ian Peakes, who plays Nick Bright, alluded to [in a talkback session, where Peakes said that he, as an American captive in Pakistan, and his tough captor, became close buddies, almost straight lovers], there was a huge revelation in the relationship between Bashir and Nick. I think it surprised both of us. We found so much love, loyalty, honesty, banter, and friendship in moments where you’d least expect. Much of the credit goes to Matt Pfeiffer for letting us play together and help find these moments where we can connect. It just added so much to the story.
Henrik: Do you have a sense that audiences and theatre critics relate to the complexity of this play, or do you have a sense that some folks might label you and the other Pakistanis as either one-dimensional terrorists and Nick Bright as the only real human being in the play?
Maboud: I think one of the things that Akhtar does so well is to bring that specific idea very much into focus. I like to give audiences credit and say they wouldn’t reduce the character to a one-dimensional terrorist. Instead, it forces us to look at the role we play as American’s in radicalization.
Romeo and Juliet, among other things is about the radicalization of teenagers and that was written 400 hundred years ago. So it’s not new really. What I think Akhtar does is expose the reality of the role America, and more specifically Globalization and Capitalism, have played in the radicalization of people around the world. And it goes way beyond simple religious ideology.
More blood has been spilled in the name of religion than for any other cause in the world, but money is definitely closing that gap. World economics has a lot to do with the disenfranchisement we see in people around the world, here in the US as well. People are willing to go to greater and greater extremes to make themselves heard and sometimes, it’s not a peaceful extreme.
The play presents us with a very real world where corruption is rampant in government—the US is not immune, and it would be naive to think it so. I think that most audiences see that and with any luck will engage more with their civic leaders and begin to ask for transparency in the decisions that affect the lives of millions at home, and around the world.
Henrik: Given the heated pre-election climate in the U.S., what effect do you think this play could have on U.S. voters?
Maboud: In all likelihood, there will be a small minority of audience members who will feel that no Pakistanis or Muslims can be trusted, but chances are they felt that before they came into the theatre. If one comes in with a blank slate, I don’t think the play will sway minds in that direction. However it will challenge the notions audiences may have about the role of Globalization, Capitalism, and America have had in the world. It may not be a pleasurable challenge but one that must be faced. As for whether or not it will affect voters, hopefully, it’ll lead to a serious demand for transparency and a dispassionate session of self-evaluation.
Henrik: What is the invisible hand that drives you in your life as an actor and a mensch?
Maboud: I think there’s quite a balancing act happening behind the curtain—success, artistic fulfillment, happiness, bills. Without sounding trite, I think I’ve been given an opportunity to fight the good fight, hearts and minds type stuff, and as difficult as it may be sometimes, it’s one I relish. I think humanity is flawed, and I think the answer to much of our problems is in ourselves:
“Men at some time are masters of their fates:/ The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,/ But in ourselves, that we are underlings.” [Shakespeare, Julius Caesar (I, ii)]
I think the first line of that gets overlooked quite a lot, and I think it’s just as important as the idea it precedes. When we have the opportunity to make a difference, to take hold of fate, it’s a prospect that must be considered.
Henrik: Is there anything else you would like to share?
Maboud: Thank you. I think I’ve gone on quite enough.
[Studio X, 1340 S. 13th Street] May 12-June 5, 2016; theatreexile.org.