BWW Reviews: Horse Head Theatre Company's THE ALIENS is Quiet, Unusual, and Captivating
My research indicates that the average temperature highs in July in Vermont are in the low 80s, making Annie Baker's lines about discomforting heat in THE ALIENS almost farcical during Horse Head Theatre Company's presentation of the peculiar play. Always presenting works in non-traditional spaces that perfectly serve the scripts being produced, Horse Head Theatre Company is producing THE ALIENS in Boheme Café & Wine Bar back lot. Throughout the evening, unplanned but organic atmospheric noises only heighten the experience. The gravel crunches underfoot of patrons in the parking lot as they approach the metal folding chairs arranged in rows. The hum of many conversations sneaks in from the nearby outdoor seating area of Boheme, and so do noises associated with its food truck. The stage is an elevated platform made to look like the back door of the Vermont coffee shop where the play takes place, the parking lot serving as a realistic environment that this stage exists in. Horse Head's creative team has a knack for finding unusual locations and crafting events worth every penny of admission.
Even though I saw and loved Stark Naked Theatre Company's production of Annie Baker's BODY AWARENESS last season, I'm not sure anything could have adequately prepared me for THE ALIENS. Between the two plays, her voice is consistent in how keenly she crafts dialogue. The characters speak in these deeply layered expressions of life and love that are wholly believable to the ear. No one line is a throw away. Everything said is relevant and will be addressed (and sometimes re-addressed) throughout the course of the play. However, while both are linear plays, there is a seemingly non-linear aura to THE ALIENS. These conversations are so laidback that they feel like they have probably occurred many times before. In that way, KJ and Jasper are somewhat like Vladimir and Estragon. However, unlike Samuel Beckett's WAITING FOR GODOT, in THE ALIENS something happens. It's just that most members of the audience won't fully realize what has happened and is happening until the end of the second act's first scene.Essentially loitering, KJ, played by Kevin Jones, and Jasper, played by Drake Simpson, have no discernable ambitions for their lives. They sit behind a coffee shop and candidly converse when not sitting in silence. Oddly enough, these silences are where the show really comes to life, especially as the play opens with a lengthy but fascinating silence. Eventually, we find out that Drake Simpson's Jasper was recently dumped and not truly ready to talk about it. Kevin Jones' KJ doesn't mind, as he is perfectly content with sitting in silence and casually breaking into peculiar little ditties from when he and Jasper had a band. This duo engages the audience because they are so delightfully eccentric and weird. Even though Jasper never attended college and KJ dropped out, both are deeply insightful and intelligent human beings. They just don't exert any energy to find a foothold in modern America's fast-paced cooperate machine. Instead, they seem to thrive in slow motion, contemplating anything and everything they choose to. Yet, the best element of these performances is how well Kevin Jones and Drake Simpson make their richly developed lines seem naturalistic. You'll be hard pressed to find anyone who speaks in weighty prose that is connected to everything they have said like these men, but you'll be surprised at how realistic the words flowing from them sound.
Matt Lents perfectly plays Evan Shelmerdine, a socially awkward 17-year-old Jewish boy that works at the coffee shop. When he first appears in the play he is taking out the trash and attempts to run the duo off. He nervously wrings his hands, twists The Edges of his apron, and darts his eyes around, masterfully bringing to life a gangly teenager that is unsure of his self. Even when he is not talking, Matt Lents' Evan Shelmerdine speaks volumes through all of his well-planned and delivered non-verbal cues, often skillfully acting with his face, hands, and vociferous body language.The technical aspects of the show work well. The company has a simplistic lighting design that creates rich golden hues for afternoon and evening scenes. Their blue wash for the night scene and flashing colored lights for fireworks are also nice. The projection design is minimalistic but intriguing, becoming more apparent and complicated as the show progresses; for example, the illusion of rainfall in between two second act scenes is a fascinating visual representation of KJ's emotional state. Lastly, the sound design is notably effective and riveting. The play opens with a cacophony of ambient, urban noises that draw the audience into the production. As the show progresses, the noises seem to indicate and poignantly reflect the changes in KJ's mental and emotional stability.