Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

The Aliens
Walking Shadow Theatre Company
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of The Arsonists, Only One Sophie, and Newsies


Paul Rutledge, Paul LaNave, and Spencer H. Levin
Photo by Dan Norman
The Aliens is a play by Annie Baker being given its first Twin Cities production by Walking Shadow Theatre Company. Since her first play was produced Off-Broadway in 2008, Baker has shot to the top echelon of contemporary American writers, winning an Obie Award in 2010 for, not one, but two plays that appeared that season, Circle Mirror Transformation and The Aliens, and in 2013 won the Pulitzer Prize for her much lauded play, The Flick. Clearly, Baker is striking a nerve with theatergoers and critics alike. Walking Shadow shows us why, thanks to a clarity of direction, fully realized performances, and design work that brings a sheen of authenticity to the production.

The Aliens is neither science fiction nor about illegal immigration, but rather a coming of age story. The aliens of the title are two men, roughly 30 years old, who are adrift in life. Jasper is a high school drop-out and wannabe novelist who has just been dumped by his girlfriend. KJ, his best friend, is an emotionally tortured college drop-out who lives with his mother. The Aliens is one of many names tried for a band they used to have. It is never stated why the band faltered, but it seems clear their ambitions and discipline never matched their romance with the rock and roll life. Their current clubhouse is the fenced-in backyard of a coffee shop (in the fictional town of Shirley, Vermont) that houses a garbage dumpster, a recycling bin, and a picnic table intended for employees only. Here they are insulated from the rest of the world, and spend a great deal of time together in silence, Jasper smoking cigarettes and KJ breaking out in song. Occasionally they talk.

Into this hideaway comes Evan, a high school student with a summer job at the coffee shop between his junior and senior years, to throw out the trash. Evan has been instructed that the yard is for employee use only, and nervously tells Jasper and KJ they must leave. With no intention of leaving, they stonewall Evan, and he goes back to work, nonplussed. However, over the course of a couple of weeks, in two acts, Evan becomes more relaxed in his encounters with the two men. They go from teasing him to taking pride in influence over him as he samples some of the adult choices they have (poorly) made. It seems that Jasper and KJ have been spinning their wheels and getting nowhere, but the sparks of those spinning wheels ignite the spirit of their young acolyte, as Evan begins to gain a sense of who he is, beyond high school and coffee shop jobs. Evan goes away for a spell to work at a summer camp and when he returns, the transformation continues beyond anything he bargained for.

Baker has masterfully created three characters embroiled in inner soul-searching and uncertainty, but struggling to maintain a veneer of calm, cool collectedness. The cracks in Evan's veneer are fully visible, even to him, but it doesn't take long to see that KJ and Jasper stand on ground just as shaky. John Heimbuch's direction allows the three to relate as nature would have it, with long pauses, digressions, outbursts, miscommunication, and laughter. KJ's attempt to explain propositional calculus to Evan—KJ had been a math major—and Evan's valiant efforts to follow this ramble is a great example. It is quite funny but also leaves us sorry for KJ, so lost in ideas. The unspoken connection between Jasper and KJ is strongly felt, and Evan's changing sense of the two men from a threat and nuisance to guys who have been out in the world, and whom he might learn from, to possibly friends is made fully believable.

Paul Rutledge as Jasper and Paul LaNave as KJ are both superb with not a false move. Rutledge's Jasper is more subdued, with more kept inside, but he does have an edge. LaNave's KJ is full of manic energy; it is a very physical performance and he enjoys stirring up drama. Their give and take toward one another is in beautiful harmony. Spencer H. Levin portrays Evan, at the start gripped by nerves, trying to be smooth and confident while tics and stammers betray him. As the play progresses, he becomes more at ease with his discomfort and begins to take ownership of his own personhood. Just a bit. He is still very young.

The service yard setting is a beaut. A tall commercial-grade wooden fence encloses the space, so that Jasper and KJ can only enter by climbing over the garbage dumpster. Attention to details creates just the right look for behind the scenes of a Vermont coffee shop. National Geographic couldn't have gotten it better. Light and sound—clanging dishes and music coming from within the shop and a terrifically imagined Fourth of July fireworks show in the distance—bring the stage to life. The costumes are exactly right for these three guys: Jasper and KJ's excessively lived in, Evan's looking like his mom had a hand in picking them out.

As for the title, Jasper and KJ are aliens from the society in which they have not really found places for themselves. They cling to their friendship as a safe haven. Evan walks through the door as a kid trying to fit in and be what is expected of him. Jasper and KJ give him the vision to realize that the alien feeling may be within himself. Perhaps, to differing degrees, in us all. This can be unsettling or affirming, depending on one's outlook. The Aliens brings this question to the fore in a play that is entertaining, moving, and brimming with truth.

The Aliens, a Walking Shadow Theatre Company production, continue through February 27, 2016, at the Red Eye Theater, 15 West 14th Street, Minneapolis, MN. Tickets: advance sale - $22.00, $20.00 seniors; at the Door: $26.00, $24.00 seniors; $15.00 students; $18.00 for MN Fringe button holders at select performances; $10.00 Economic Accessibility Tickets (advance sale only). Call 612-375-0300 or go to walkingshadowcompany.org.

Writer: Annie Baker; Director: John Heimbuch; Set Designer and Technical Director: Erica Zaffarano; Costume Designer: E. Amy Hill; Lighting Designer: Paola Rodriguez; Sound Designer: Michael Croswell; Props Designer: Abbee Warmboe; Dramaturg: Jeff Turner; Stage Manager: Topaz Cooks; Production Manager: David Pisa; Assistant Director: Bryanna Vinge; Assistant Stage Manager: Beth Ann Powers.

Cast: Paul LaNave (KJ), Spencer H. Levin (Evan), Paul Rutledge (Jasper)


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