Ben Park, Aaron Roitman, & Eliot Zellers with members of the audience in The Aliens. Photo by Eli Keel
By Annie Baker
Directed by Maggie Rogers
Review by Eli Keel
Entire contents copyright © 2016 by Eli Keel. All rights reserved
My momma used to say that as an artist, sometimes you have to go out on a limb, even though you know that sometimes that limb is going to snap.
The phrase could almost be the motto of Walden Theatre’s Alumni Company. Ben Park, the current leader of the company, is fond of saying that the group likes to offer Walden graduates the opportunity to take on work that “they have no business doing.” It can lead to mixed results in their productions, as the loosely affiliated group of recent and not-as-recent Walden graduates (and occasional other actors from the community) attempt difficult work, often with unconventional staging ideas.
It’s hard to imagine a riskier play than their current production of Annie Baker’s The Aliens. Guest director Maggie Rogers, fresh off a stint as an intern at Seattle Repertory Theatre, has placed the action of the play outside in the muggy July heat, and delivered a production devoid of lights, relying only on the waning sunlight to illuminate the proceedings. The play as written contains long stretches of silence, and the performances of the three-actor ensemble are left to fill those spaces with meaning.
But if sometimes the limb snaps under the artist and they fall, the other possibility is that sometimes the artist takes off from that limb and flies. It’s hard to imagine more rewarding and heartfelt production than Rogers’ staging of The Aliens.
The site-specific production takes place in the concrete outdoor space next to Commonwealth Theatre Center’s building, a space that perfectly mirrors the setting for the play, an outdoor break area at a local coffee shop. The space exists between two buildings, and with the addition of a couple of rows of chairs it becomes a natural proscenium. Rogers pushes the action to one end of the space, allowing her to utilize a wrought iron fence, a door into CTC’s space, and even the brief concrete stairs down to the parking lot area. It gives the playing area an unexpected level of depth, which Rogers and the ensemble put to great use.
The action of The Aliens centers around two friends and one coffee shop employee. Jasper Kopatch (Ben Parks) and KJ (Eliot Zellers) spend most of their time bumming around the break area of the coffee shop, where Evan Shelmerdine (Aaron Roitman) is a new employee. Shelmerdine initially tries to shoo away the two loiterers, but ends up befriending them.
All three actors are giving performances steeped in understatement. Bakers dialogue is full of stammers, pauses, and repeated words, the sort of stuff that is agony to watch if over performed. In between that dialogue, there are those long pauses, which lesser actors (or perhaps a lesser director) would have a hard time filling.
There’s no doubt that Rogers is due a large amount of credit for the success in the individual performances. She’s pitched every moment of the play nearly perfectly, and encouraged naturalism that feel as real as the concrete.
Parks’ Jasper dominates the first act, with stammered anger and agitated cigarette smoking. He’s an all too familiar type, the artsy guy who never manages to make it much of anywhere, and will gladly spend forty-five minutes telling you about his novel. And just like Jasper’s many real world counter parts, you can never quite decide if he’s the real deal or just another slightly charismatic, self-absorbed asshole. Parks brings just the right level of charm and self-delusion, so even in the moments that you’re tempted to write his Jasper off as just another asshole, he’s an asshole you feel the need to humor and hang out with.
Roitman’s Schelmerdine is all anxiety and low self-esteem. While all three of the actors left me asking where the great acting left off and the great casting began, Roitman doesn’t ever really seem to be acting. He’s just being. He’s a twitchy bundle of nerves, so devoid of force or personal power that even two burnt out hipsters can push him around. Roitman repeatedly mines this perpetual fret for comic gold, but when the time finally comes for him to explode emotionally, that energy pours out in a few moments that were incredibly moving, though still appropriately understated and strange.
Zellers as KJ is perhaps the least naturalistic of the trio, but it plays into his character as the spacey former logic major who is possibly always on ‘shrooms. Again, it’s a character most audience members will likely remember from their own youth. We all have that friend who’s just a little too into psychedelics, and talks nonsense half the time.
Zellers gets more of a chance to shine in the play’s second act, and his rendition of KJ’s epic ladder-centric monologue put me in mind of some of the better performances I’ve seen over the years of Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech.
And can we talk about how much I miss actual smoking onstage? Rogers’ choice to use an outdoor space allows her to also use real cigarettes, and having seen The Aliens thus performed I have a hard time imagining ever being satisfied with fake cigarettes again. In a play so concerned with what is going on between people in the silent moments, the labored inhale of nicotine becomes a character into itself, with a different relationship with each of the players.
Also, there were fireworks.
I loved this production. Rogers will head back to Chicago in the fall, and I hope they appreciate her. If she ever gets tired of the Windy City, Louisville will be lucky to have her back. Roitman will likewise depart, to another year of college.
Parks and Zellers will probably grace Louisville stages again in the near future. They have a lot to live up to after The Aliens, and I’ll be eager to see what they get into.
Performed in repertory with Cowboy Mouth
The Aliens July 20 @ 7:30pm, July 22, 23 @ 9:15pm
Cowboy Mouth July 18, 19, 21 @ 7:30pm
Walden Theatre Alumni Company
Commonwealth Theatre Center
1125 Payne Street
Louisville, Kentucky 40206
Eli Keel is an arts reporter and culture critic. He has been published at Salon, The Mary Sue, NPR affiliate Louisville Public Media, Collider, Louisville Magazine, and Insider Louisville. As an actor, he has worked with Actors Theatre of Louisville, Kentucky Shakespeare Festival, and is a founding member of Theatre . As a playwright, he has been produced by Theatre , Finnigan Productions, and The Bard’s Town. He is the producer and host of The Portland Poetry Series, in the historic Portland neighborhood of Louisville, Kentucky.