The Aliens provides spectacular catharsis
Last week, the School of Drama presented a production of Annie Baker’s The Aliens — which takes its title from the Charles Bukowski poem of the same name — in the John Wells Video Studio in the Purnell Center for the Arts. The play revolves around three young men who share loneliness and dissatisfaction with their stagnant lives in the lot behind a teashop.
What drives The Aliens isn’t necessarily plot, but instead the relationship formed between the shy and fearful Evan, played by junior acting major Luke LaMontagne, and the two trapped free spirits who hang around in the lot behind the teashop where he works: Jasper, played by junior acting major Brady Dowad, and KJ, played by junior musical theatre major Jean Floradin.
Evan, a boy approaching the end of high school and, thus, about to forge his own life, stands in stark contrast to Jasper and KJ, who have both found their lives falling short of their ambitions. KJ is a former mathematics and philosophy major with a penchant for psychedelic mushrooms who dropped out of school after suffering a nervous breakdown, the effects of which still linger in his erratic mind. Jasper is a former trailer-trash orphan turned talented aspiring novelist who idolizes Charles Bukowski, but is haunted by his past and lacks the motivation to push his life forward. The friendship the three forge is incredibly real and beautiful, which makes it all the more heartbreaking when things come crashing down.
The show’s acting, a vital ingredient in such a character-driven show, was phenomenal. Dowad tapped into something within him to bring out the pain in Jasper’s tortured character, but knew when to bring forth the hopeful energy that marked Jasper’s more effective moments. KJ, a difficult character who is all over the map emotionally and mentally, was well controlled by Floradin. In KJ’s moments of psychosis, especially, Floradin made the room feel as if it had shrunk by a factor of a million.
The show belonged to LaMontagne, though, who not only navigated his way through both the sudden shifts between heavy drama and comedy, but perfectly exhibited the change in Evan’s character from a meek boy allowing himself to be controlled by his surroundings to a man determined to live life on his own terms. The show’s final scene, involving Evan sloppily playing the folk tune “The Hammer Song,” was especially powerful in the defiance of it.
What helped make The Aliens such a memorable experience was the immediacy of it. The John Wells Video Studio is an incredibly small space, and the furthest any audience member could be from the performing space was perhaps a yard. This closeness removed any sense of detachment from the action and allowed you to feel as if you were sitting in the lot right with the characters. The show was so intimate that one could even hear the pant legs of the actors gently rubbing against each other.
Director Cameron Margeson took advantage of the play’s less-is-more approach with great success, often allowing a simple silence to linger just enough to let it speak volumes. The close quarters of the studio certainly helped in this achievement. Junior acting major Jeremy Hois praised the show’s “beautiful use of silence, which often added more to the words than what was simply written.”
The set was simple, but said a lot about the space that the characters inhabited. A tire full of cigarette butts demonstrated the history of the lot and Jasper and KJ’s place in it. The barbed wire that topped the fence that ran around the perimeter of the room either kept intruders out or, perhaps, kept Jasper and KJ trapped inside. Gentle, fingerpicked guitar melodies hovered over the few scene changes, adding to the show’s poignancy.
All in all, The Aliens was a great experience. It may not have had the same advantages of the main stage productions in the Chosky Theater — namely a big budget for elaborate sets and costumes — but that was more of a strength than a weakness. The show was what good theatre is supposed to be: powerful words spoken by talented actors that leave the audience slightly different people than they were when the show began. To put it simply: It was beautiful.