by James Wilkinson
‘The Aliens’ – Written by Annie Baker; Directed by Darren Evans; Costumes by Maureen Festa. Presented by Theatre on Fire at the Charlestown Working Theater, 442 Bunker Hill Street, Charlestown through October 7.
For the longest time, I avoided reading any of Annie Baker’s plays, though not because of any skepticism about their quality. What held me back was what I had heard about Baker’s naturalistic style. It seemed as though sitting in a chair and reading the words on the page could never compare to the performance experience. (Plays aren’t meant to be read anyway, but sometimes you take what you can get.)
It was only a few months ago that curiosity got the better of me, and I purchased a copy of The Flick, her 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winning play about three movie theater employees in western Massachusetts, and I was able to appreciate her talent for constructing subtle meditations on human interaction. However, reading the text is one thing. The question still stuck in my mind, how would I enjoy watching her work played out? This past weekend I was able to answer that question with Theatre on Fire’s wonderful production of Baker’s, The Aliens, now playing at Charlestown Working Theater. If you can adjust yourself to its wavelength, there are joys to be found in the story of three guys hanging out behind a coffee shop.
For the uninitiated, Annie Baker’s dialogue can come across as almost maddeningly bare. Characters exchange what appears to be mundane dialogue punctuated with long pauses. It’s a kind of extreme naturalism that’s had a number of critics drawing a comparison to Chekhov. The play focuses on a couple of twenty-something slackers, Jasper and KJ, (Jeff Marcus and Christopher Sherwood Davis) who spend their free time hanging out behind a coffee shop where a mutual friend used to work. They are occasionally joined by awkward teenager, Evan, (Ted Kearman), a current coffee shop employee who’s not sure that the two should be back there.
While I could certainly go on to describe what happens in the first few scenes, I won’t, because it would diminish the experience. It’s better to know as little as possible and let the play reveal itself. Instead, I want to assure you that Theatre on Fire’s production meets the challenge that Baker’s script presents. Director Darren Evans has assembled a team that appears to be relishing the opportunity to build the story brick by brick.
Take, for example, the opening scene. The lights come up on Jasper and KJ sitting on a picnic table, staring out into space. Time passes. KJ makes a few noises with his mouth. Time passes. Jasper takes out a cigarette and smokes it. All this before the first line of dialogue. Just as you are about to ask why nothing is happening, you realize that something is happening: Jasper is shaking his leg. In fact, Jasper appears to be in a high state of anxiety compared to the much more subdued KJ. He won’t stop bouncing his leg. Suddenly you begin asking yourself why he’s so anxious. What has happened? What’s he done? And SNAP…you’re sucked into the character’s world. This is one of the play’s strengths, it forces the audience to pay attention to the details. What appears to be inane dialogue are actually small traps set by Baker. Details that seem so insignificant in the moment grow to have devastating effects later in the play.
This kind of commitment to subtle storytelling that makes the production so enjoyable. It has the polish that comes from putting in the work with love and care. The Aliens isn’t a show where the director’s hand or the acting is immediately obvious; there’s a fluid ease to how the action is present. But had the company not put in the time to know the characters down to their bones, things would quickly become tedious. (It takes a lot of effort to make things look this laid back.) The result of that work is the audience’s earned empathy for the characters. Although we may be inclined to write off a couple of drop-outs who spend their days talking about their band and the novel they’re working on, neither the play nor the production looks down on its protagonists. Actors Marcus and Davis imbue Jasper and KJ with enough charisma that, like Evan, you can’t help but be sucked into their orbit. Evan, perhaps, is the character that grows the most over the course of the play and Kearnan makes us feel each step he takes out of his shell.
Great care has also gone into the production’s design elements, not only in costume designer Maureen Festa’s ensemble choices (which I am now dubbing “Slackerwear”), but in how director Evans’ designs the environment. Audience members are asked not to walk into Charlestown Working Theater, but rather, to out back, where a makeshift performance space has recreated the play’s setting. The choice to take the play out of the theater and into the world works wonderfully with Baker’s naturalistic aesthetic and creates an immediate intimacy that may not have been possible indoors. Some may gripe at the sounds of traffic that reverberate not too far from the performance space, but I thought it worked as an expansion on what the play is driving at. There’s something kind of wonderful about how impermanent human connection is. People enter and leave our lives in sometimes devastating and random ways but the world spins on. Nothing stops, as much as we may like it to. Still, perhaps in small steps, the connections push us towards growth. Much like the audience for a play, we walk away from the interaction (hopefully) a little better off than we were before. For tickets and more info, visit their website at: www.theatreonfire.org