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“The Who & the What”

TheaterWorks Hartford

TheaterWorks Hartford is currently presenting a video stream of their powerful production of Ayad Akhtar’s gripping play, “The Who & the What.”  As expertly directed by Aneesha Kudtarkar, this play manages to embrace family, religion, assimilation, and other potent topics while still being an entertaining and vibrant show.  The four-member company of actors is flawless, with a particularly astounding performance by Rajesh Bose, and the play’s running time of about ninety minutes seems to just fly by.  In these troubled times, theater is needed more than ever and, this season, TheaterWorks Hartford is ambitiously presenting a play every month, to be streamed on-line.  “The Who & the What” is a riveting production that is most highly recommended and it makes one long to see what other works this theater company will be presenting in the upcoming months.

For now, though, “The Who & the What” is truly a significant piece of theater.  Not to give too much away, the play focuses on the character of Afzal (Rajesh Bose), who is the father of two adult daughters, Mahwish (Sanam Laila Hashemi) and Zarina (Jessica Jain).  It is established early on in the show that the girls’ mother has died from cancer and widower Afzal is pretty much raising his daughters on his own.  The family is Muslim and their religion and beliefs are at the forefront of the way they live and how they relate to others in America.  “The Who & the What” is most definitely both a family drama, as well as a play about staying true to one’s religion.  Indeed, it is actually a controversial book about Muslim customs that Zarina is writing about which proves to be the catalyst for the play’s explosive second half.

Not to be forgotten is the character of Eli (Stephen Elrod), a young white man who has converted to Islam and who has a strong attraction to Zarina, at the beginning of the play.  A good part of the electricity in this show is based on the surprises that come up unexpectedly, so I would be loath to reveal any more of the plot.  One, however, can focus on the uniformly fine performances of this cast.  As the two sisters, both Jessica Jain as the elder daughter Zorina and Sanam Laila Hashemi as Mahwish are absolutely terrific, and there is a playfulness in how they relate to each other that is positively infectious.  As Eli, Stephen Elrod is excellent and he certainly holds his own as the one character who can be considered an outsider to the family at the center of the play.

However, in a company of equals, Rajesh Bose as the father Afzal is tremendous and almost a force of nature onstage.  Playing this character, one can see the hardships this man has lived through to provide a good home for his daughters and Bose can go from being endearingly paternal to volcanic within a moment’s notice.  I have seen this actor give phenomenal performances in two other incisive and incendiary plays by Ayad Akhtar, “Disgraced” and “The Invisible Hand,” but Bose is even better in “The Who & the What” because his character remains multi-dimensional and he can embrace opposing emotions, all at the same time.  If for no other reason, “The Who & the What” would be a must-see just to experience this actor’s extremely emotional and moving performance.

But every aspect of this production operates at the same high level, from the acting to the wonderful set design by Brian Prather (which is adapted from a design for the stage by Michael Schweikardt), to the extremely appropriate and significant costumes (designed by Mika Eubanks), and the effective lighting design by Amith Chandrashker.  Of course, a good deal of the triumph of this production must go to the superlative director Aneesha Kudtarkar, who has staged this amazing play ideally from beginning to end.  TheaterWorks Hartford deserves a great deal of applause for producing “The Who & the What,” in a production that is both challenging and enjoyable.  By all means, see this video stream of “The Who & the What,” for an unforgettable evening of theater.

“The Who & the What” will be streamed at home until November 28, 2020. For more information and tickets to stream the show, please visit www.theaterworkshartford.org.

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