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THEATRE REVIEW: Chester Theatre’s harsh, difficult ‘The Aliens’ is well-acted, realistic

Relatively unknown, the script is a challenge to the audience and, for the most part, that challenge was met by the opening night audience.

The Aliens
By Annie Baker
Original music and lyrics by Michael Chernus, Patch Darragh, Erin Gann
Directed by Daniel Elihu Kramer

“A college dropout and trailer trash.”

James Barry as Jasper in the Chester Theatre Company production of ‘The Aliens.’ Photo: Elizabeth Solaka

The unlikely trio of a high school junior, half Jewish, and two men at about 30, one a college drop out and the other a vagrant piece of trailer trash, forge a relationship that, almost intact, survives a disaster that none of them expect. It’s not a global disaster, but a personal one. It affects each one differently: For example, the high-school kid is unbelieving, devastated, reactive; the college dropout is nearly catatonic and gives up radical truths for uncomfortable lies. But let’s go back to the beginning. Let’s imagine the feeling of opening your back door to take out the garbage only to find two strangers, strange men indeed, laughing and singing and picnicking at your outdoor table. This is what confronts Evan Schamberdeen at the top of the play by Annie Baker, currently playing at Chester Theatre Company.

James Barry’s Jasper is a natural-born leader with the simple need to be appreciated for who he is and what he can do. A recent novelist with a book that takes the personal issues that complete him and converts those issues into plot points including the sexual encounters of its hero, he is willing to share his wisdom, his world and his goals with a youth who only wants to see him gone from the premises. Barry has an inborn sense of threat about him, which dissipates into compassion when he smiles or laughs or sings in this play. His character is at the heart of this ensemble piece, but Jasper’s personality constantly threatens to dominate the play as Barry plays him. It is a triumph for him that he never truly takes over the play and some of that may be due to the direction by Daniel Elihu Kramer. Even though he has placed Barry, seemingly forever, in the heart of center stage, the other two actors do manage to pull focus, sometimes only for a moment, but sometimes longer. The trio plays well together.

Joel Ripka as KJ and James Barry as Jasper in the Chester Theatre Company production of ‘The Aliens.’ Photo: Elizabeth Solaka

Joel Ripka’s KJ sends messages to his companions and to us through his silences and his subtle, neo-Buddhist movements. He bursts into a cappella song and reminisces about his long friendship with Jasper and their musical aspirations. His hippy beard and his many T-shirts call up a time almost better forgotten when the vagabond soul could survive earthquakes if he had a folk song to guide him, a small bottle of anything alcoholic and a few psychedelic mushrooms on hand with which to spike the tea. The images created by Ripka and Barry are eerily reminiscent of Washington Square in Greenwich Village in downtown Manhattan in the 1960s, a time when young soldiers were mustered out of Vietnam and started movements that allowed us all to breathe freer air and play freer games.

Ripka is wonderful as KJ. Annie Baker’s sometimes very literary language rolls off his tongue as naturally as if he was merely muttering some slangy expression about attitude and response, classically stated in popular four-letter words. However, KJ has pretty speeches and song lyrics and Ripka to play him extremely well. His beard gives him a smoothness and a roundness that hides his angular face well. He uses the softness that this implies to build a character so loveable that, by the intermission (yes, a two-act play), the general impulse to reach out and hold the man is almost too hard to resist.

Joel Ripka as KJ in the Chester Theatre Company production of ‘The Aliens.’ Photo: Elizabeth Solaka

Kramer has given this actor many opportunities to pull focus but Ripka keeps the performance congenially collegial. Not until late in the second act does he dominate the stage and, when he does, it is like a revelation. Physical strength overcoming emotional angst is what gives KJ his ultimate motivation and it comes almost too late in the play to do him much good. The subtle darkness of the moment is a revelation about KJ and a high point in Ripka’s carefully calculated interaction with the others.

Though the play could easily run its course with only Jasper and KJ, Baker has given them the kid to play with, to teach in their unlearned ways, to motivate as only they could. Kramer has wisely cast Paul Pontrelli, who brings glaring bursts of reaction into the backyard set. Evan, as played by this actor, is a kid whose need for inclusion has been long buried within his pysche. He is torn between doing his job and joining the interactive race of man. He works hard to doing both and, with Jasper and KJ hidden away behind the cafe where Evan works, he has a unique opportunity to follow his instincts.

Paul Pontrelli as Evan in the Chester Theatre Company production of ‘The Aliens.’ Photo: Elizabeth Solaka

Pontrelli is terrific without a single moment of hesitation at each new turn in the story. He plays with honest simplicity and, even when his reactions jump into the “acting” of them, he can be forgiven because showing his work lasts only a moment and then he is real again.

Ed Check’s realistic set makes the play feel even more real than the dialogue does, and Stella Schwartz’s costumes suit the characters and their stations in the world. Lara Dubin does fine work with the lights, especially in the Fourth of July sequence at the end of Act One that is not what you expect. Tom Shread’s sound design work is just fine for the play.

Daniel Elihu Kramer, the producer, must be given credit for bringing such a harsh and difficult piece to the Chester stage. Relatively unknown, the script is a challenge to his audience and, for the most part, that challenge was met by the opening night audience. This is one of those shows where the second act is necessary and brings some startling revelations, surprises all around. Hard as some may find this to believe, the benefit of the doubt pays off in spades here.

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The Aliens plays at Chester Theatre Company in the Chester Town Hall Theater at 15 Middlefield Road, Chester, Massachusetts, through Sunday, Aug. 19. For information and tickets, see the Berkshire Edge calendar, go online to chestertheatre.org or call the box office at (413) 354-7770.

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