It’s the fourth day of rehearsal for the cast of Pi Theatre’s newest production, the Canadian premiere of Ayad Akhtar’s The Invisible Hand. Outside, it’s the bustle of Chinatown on a Saturday afternoon. Inside, it’s a scene of captivity, tense and taut and volatile, as actor Munish Sharma paces the taped-off stage dimensions. His character, Bashir, is among three men holding an American banker for ransom. Sharma himself is never more than 10 feet away from a large map of Pakistan, which is off-stage—and dotted with red pins, a visual reminder that while the play is fictional, its reference points are very real.
In The Invisible Hand, Akhtar, who also wrote the Pulitzer Prize–winning play Disgraced, manages to craft something that’s equal parts thriller and lesson in economics, exploring the intersection of Wall Street, capitalism, and the earliest seeds of Islamic extremism. All three kidnappers have different motivations, but it’s Sharma’s portrayal of Bashir—and his seething contempt as he lashes out at the “wealthy Americans looting our country, taking our water away from the people”—that is most palpable. When Bashir violently assaults one of his co-conspirators, it feels like all the air disappears from the room.
“Once I got ahold of the script, the character kind of screamed out at me,” Sharma tells the Straight with a smile, during his lunch break. Bashir might seem like a bad man, but Sharma is impressed with the nuances of Akhtar’s script, and how the play forces the audience to confront its preconceived notions about money, religion, and extremism.
“Money doesn’t have a religion per se, but some people view money as a religion,” Sharma says. “We watch things on TV and we see shapes, like a face, and we make that face evil, but nobody ever asks, ‘Where does this money come from? How does this work? Can’t we just cut somebody off of those funds?’ It plays a huge factor. How are fundamentalists getting funded?”
The play also affords space to the concept of belonging, something that Sharma himself closely identifies with as a first-generation South Asian Canadian. (His parents moved to Canada from India.) Bashir, who is Pakistani but grew up in the London suburb of Hounslow, returns to his homeland looking for that sense of home, Sharma says.
“Bashir might be focused on bigger ideals of bringing governments down or whatever, but he still wants a place, he still wants to help people,” Sharma says.
Playing the fundamentalist Bashir is a significant departure for Sharma. A self-described “goof” who loves sketch comedy (he counts the sketch group I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter Chicken among his credits), Sharma says the majority of his roles are lovable characters. “There’s a little more guile and fire in Bashir. It feels like quite the opposite of who I am every day and as an actor.”
In fact, for the last several years, Sharma’s most consistent role has been Socratease, his burlesque persona.
“Pi Theatre is the reason I started doing burlesque four or five years ago,” Sharma says, recalling a Pi fundraiser where actors were asked to try new things. Pi’s artistic director, Richard Wolfe, put him in touch with burlesque artist Burgundy Brixx and Sharma was hooked. “The Vancouver burlesque scene is quite amazing, they’re like my family.”
Wolfe also helped encourage Sharma to write his first one-act play last year, the dark comedy Mrs. Singh & Me, which won Pick of the Fringe. But Bashir is his first major opportunity to showcase his versatility as an actor.
“Richard has been very supportive of me for years,” Sharma says. “When he offered me this role he said, and I won’t forget this the rest of my life, ‘Munish, I’ve seen you for years, you work very hard, you’re a committed performer. This is a role you deserve and I want to give you this chance.’ I’m very thankful for that.”
Pi Theatre presents The Invisible Hand from Tuesday (April 5) to April 23 at the Cultch’s Historic Theatre.