THEATRE REVIEW: Emergent Ensemble’s ‘Aliens’ a strange, wonderful play — in a tunnelMore Info
By Annie Baker
Directed by Maizy Broderick Scarpa
Original Music and Lyrics by Michael Chernus, Patch Darragh and Erin Gann
“Part of me found it attractive, you know?”
In 2014 Annie Baker won a Pulitzer Prize in drama for her sixth play, “The Flick.” Four years earlier her third play, “The Aliens,” shared the OBIE Award with her second play, “Circle Mirror Transformation.” This is a terrific record for a playwright born in 1981. “The Aliens” is now being presented for two weeks only in a peculiar venue by an odd company and the play works wonderfully in this environmental setting. The play is set in a back alley behind a restaurant in the fictional town of Shirley, Vermont. The play is being seen in a back alley tunnel off the main drag in Housatonic, Massachusetts.
You get your ticket at a table in the parking lot, walk down into the tunnel and find the program materials and notes scrawled in chalk and pen on the walls of the tunnel, proceed to your seats at the western entrance to this space and wait for the play to begin. It’s behind The Green Sheep cafe where two men, played by Patrick Toole and Colin McCarthy, sit in silence waiting for just the right moment to speak. Once they do, nothing about this tunnel is ever the same again, not even the pre-announced bats, birds and bugs.
Toole plays Jasper, an unconventional child of the streets who has discovered his own particular genius at long last. He is a novelist with a unique idea that has been surpressed by the main character himself and now the struggle for supremacy is on. It’s writer versus character, a classic battle, this time set in Iowa City. Luckily for the nameless protagonist, Jasper has been distracted by the fourth of July weekend and his friend KJ’s needs. Toole has the most extraordinary stare and his pale blue eyes almost disappear from view as he appraises what he sees before him, a young boy carrying out the trash from the cafe. He also plays guitar, sings, and makes Jasper into one of the most enthralling characters ever encountered. This is an actor with a future. He is also a founding member of the unique company that is presenting this play, Emergent Ensemble.
As his best friend, perhaps only friend, Colin McCarthy is a unique cageless bird named KJ. He sings and dances and plays with fire. He has psychotic passes and addresses reality with a single nod. KJ is captivating in McCarthy’s hands. In July this character lays in the dirt and makes snow angels, flirts with the future and fashions his reactions to the past. McCarthy has a realistic style of playing that makes it sometimes difficult to know if he is still in character; there is an uncanny sense of living the role that is often disturbing.
As directed by Maizy Broderick Scarpa, McCarthy’s KJ sometimes removes himself from our line of vision only to disturb us with small, almost minor noises or gestures from way down the tunnel. She places him out of sight but never out of mind. In fact, Scarpa does this same sort of thing with the other two men in the play, but not in the way she manipulates KJ. With McCarthy she forges an interior viewpoint that no one gets close to but everyone notices.
In Alexander Dornemann, the director has found the perfect young man to play a shy, nervous, politically imperfect high school student whose needs are greater than the sum of their parts. He flits with perfection from one diffident reaction to another: here assertive, there reluctant. Evan Schamberdeen, half Jewish and half embarrassed, tries to make himself the one in control of a difficult situation but Evan hasn’t the ability to take control, even of himself and his devotions. “I kind of hate America. . .it’s not a bad thing,” he says at one point equivocating and retracting, then apologizing all in one run-on sentence. Dornemann handles this brilliantly.
He is just as good addressing his fledgling sexual identity, his gender identification. He offers little but pulls it back when an expression of affection takes him by surprise. He falls a little bit in love with the odd men who won’t take orders but at the same time is reluctant to involve himself with them. For a fourth of July party he arrives with home-baked brownies which no one really wants (these are provided to the production by Sophie Tannenbaum and they are delicious — you may help yourself during the intermission).
The music and lyrics are by Michael Chernus, Patch Darragh and Erin Gann. Patrick Toole is also the producer and technical director. It works very well for the show. The period of the play seems to be coexistent with our own, but Jasper and KJ are men right out of the 1970s while Evan is an almost universal type. What the three actors bring to this production is a sense of limbo, time suspended, and it works so very well for the play. Maizy Scarpa has tied up all of the anomalies here into a package with the perfect wrapping, this tunnel, and a ribbon that unties itself one knot at a time.
I didn’t anticipate enjoying a play in a tunnel. I certainly had no idea what I would be finding in three actors I don’t know. Even without the offered brownies I would have been compelled to praise the work done by Emergent Ensemble in Housatonic. I have to wonder how they will follow the success of this very strange, but wonderful, play.
The Aliens plays in the tunnel beyond the parking lot at 430 Park Street, Housatonic, Mass., (opposite the Brick House Pub) through June 7. Tickets at the door. For information: firstname.lastname@example.org.