REVIEW: “The Aliens” at Chester Theatre Company

by Macey Levin

After establishing her credentials with Body Awareness, Circle Mirror Transformation and The Aliens,  Annie Baker won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in Drama for her play The Flick, about employees cleaning a movie theatre.  A common thread in her work is the slow unfolding of expository material that serves to define her characters.  This is evident in the current production of The Aliens at the Chester Theatre Company in Chester, Massachusetts.

We meet Jasper (James Barry,) a high school dropout, and KJ (Joel Ripka,) a college dropout, in the back yard of a coffee shop in a small Vermont town.  Trash cans, discarded tires, ratty plastic furniture clutter the yard, indicative of the lives the two men are leading.  Neither one of them has a job; KJ lives with his mother and Jasper rents a room.  Their conversations are punctuated by references to songs they played when they had an unsuccessful band called “The Aliens.”  KJ sings stretches of lyrics constantly through their days of doing nothing.   They don’t seem to realize, nor care, that their lives are in limbo.

Evan Shelmerdine (Paul Pontrelli,) a high school student who has been working at the coffee shop for two days as a kitchen boy asks the men to leave because the yard is for the staff.  In many ways, he is the antithesis of them.  Somewhat shy but attempting to add to his life, he is also a counselor-in-training at a Jewish music day camp and is hoping to attend Bates College.  His early tentativeness in dealing with them evolves into a tenuous friendship, especially after they invite him to their Fourth of July party, which will be in this yard.

Through the first act we hear and feel the depth of Jasper and KJ’s relationship.  They truly care for and watch out for each other. They sing a song from their band days that indicates the depth of their friendship as they harmonize. Jasper has been writing a novel; he has more insight into his life than does his friend.  The second act brings a fully unexpected, highly emotional twist.

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Baker’s dialogue is laced with long pauses with the characters staring at a distant point, yet filled with comprehension.  They are musing over what has just occurred or what their next steps will be.  This is, in effect, silent exposition as she builds their lives for us along with incidental comments and exchanges.  There is a Godotish quality to the dialogue and construction of the play in that it occasionally lurches forward aimlessly.  Though not referred to in the play, Baker named it after Charles Bukowski’s poem The Aliens.

Ripka’s KJ is lovable despite his inability to lead a productive life; he’s not yet a vagrant though he is complacent about his place in life. Vulnerability peeks through as he reveals elements of his past.   In Barry’s hands, Jasper is is more emotional than his friend.    And, despite being uneducated, he is intellectually-oriented given his ability to write his book and his appreciation of poetry, especially by Bukowski.  Both men have a strong stage presence as does Pointrell, whose Shelmerdine (Jasper and KJ do not address him by his first name) grows from insecurity place to a firm sense of direction.  He is  awkward, but as he is inspired to read Bukowski and to call a girl he’s recently met, that adolescent quality fades.  The acting by all three is impressive.

Director, and Chester’s artistic director, Daniel Elihu Kramer, straightforward staging recognizes that Baker’s work is more effective when it is simply allowed to happen.  Had he encumbered it with a lot of busyness it would be contrary to her intent. His characters are comfortable in the environment created by set designer Ed Check and Lara Dubin’s lighting.  Stella Schwartz’s costumes are the everyday outfits we would expect these men to wear, including Pointrell’s aprons.  The sound design by Tom Shread enhances the work and the original music and lyrics by Michael Chernus, Patch Darragh and Erin Gann and a strong feature to the play.

Once again, Chester Theatre Company has produced a provocative and timely play in an exemplary production.

The Aliens by Annie Baker; directed by Daniel Elihu Kramer; Assistant director: Jill Cannon; Cast:  James Barry (Jasper) Paul Pontrelli (Evan) Joel Ripka (KJ); Set Design: Ed Check; Lighting Design: Lara Dubin; Costume Design: Stella Schwartz; Sound Design: Tom Shread; Stage Manager: Meg Lydon; Original Music and Lyrics:  Michael Chernus, Patch Darragh and Erin Gann; Running time:  2 Hours, including one intermission; August 9, 2018 to August 19, 2018. http://chestertheatre.org/

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