While our own Miss Jaye is off looking for sexy shenanigans and Seattle’s best crème brulee, the theatrical world of the Grand Cities must go on! This week, UND’s Burtness Theatre has mounted a production of Annie Baker’s The Aliens. UND Theatre alum and founder of Conduit Theatre Jared Fladeland took in a show and was ever so gracious as to provide us with the following review. Please enjoy! – Editor
This review may or may not contain spoilers. I do my best to limit these, but consider yourself warned.
Earlier this week, I attended The Aliens by Annie Baker. Walking into the black box theatre, in the basement of the Burtness Theatre on the campus of the University of North Dakota, I was immediately confronted by brick walls, covered in posters and graffiti. Being well acquainted with the space, it was a little jarring. It wasn’t until I moved past an opening in the wall, did I find the seating, which overlooked a very realistic outdoor break area for employees of a coffee shop in Vermont. The set, designed by Brad Reissig, and built by Loren J. Leopold, was nicely done. With Mr. Reissig’s lighting design, involving some amazing, layered looks and cues, the viewer is transported to several different times of day. Mr. Leopold’s sound design brilliantly compliments all of this with an amazingly intricate outdoor soundscape (one particular bird cue truly felt like a bird was flying above my head). I mention all this to say, that the technical aspects of the show put me in the world of this script. This show could easily have been performed in one of the alleys of downtown Grand Forks.
The story centers on two young men who hang out in this particular space, discussing music, Bukowski, and the drama of ex-girlfriends. Jasper, an aspiring writer, is played by Daniel Johnson, while his accomplice, KJ is played by Joe Picardi. As they’ve established their playful relationship, one that includes many pauses in dialogue (more on that later), enter: Evan, played hilariously by Matthew Stavens, the new barista at the coffee shop, a summer job while he still attends the local high school. Jasper and KJ end up taking Evan under their wing, teaching him about life, and accepting Evan for who he is.
As mentioned, this show deals with a number of breaks in the dialogue. Nothing particular happens in them. Characters are just allowed to be on stage. The director, Darin Kerr, states in his notes for the play, “The plays of lauded dramatist Annie Baker are such stories. They ask us to slow down, to contemplate, to find the humor and pathos in what may seem like stasis. Moreover, they ask us to experience silence in ways that few plays do in such a sustained fashion.” It is in the silence we learn more about the characters.
The costumes for the characters speak volumes. Designed by Jacqueline DeGraff, the wardrobes for the characters are as equally filled with wonderful details as the set, lights, and sound. Evan’s costume changes are subtle, but show a certain personality type in comparison to the less-than-put-together outfits of Jasper and KJ. You learn about the characters, because there is much to be said about the characters that might not be outwardly spoken for most of the play.
Mr. Johnson, as Jasper, is charismatic and distant. Someone you want to get to know, and yet as the play unfolds, his demons become clear. Mr. Picardi, as KJ, is more transparent. We learn more about KJ from Jasper, so that his journey in the play is less shocking. Mr. Picardi plays KJ with heart, but also makes the dark undercurrents of KJ’s character visible with believability without resorting to caricature. Both Johnson and Picardi hold the play together, but Mr. Stavens truly steals the show with Evan. He is lovable, and lives truly vulnerable on the stage. When his heart breaks, our heart breaks. Most of our laughter comes from the character’s naivety towards the world of KJ and Jasper.
These characters resonated with me. They were the type of people I called friends in my teenage years. It feels like the work of the actors and director for this production were to build these relationships. There is another, darker undercurrent in the show, and that is addiction. Substance use is definitely a part of these lives, and it leads to some dark moments on the stage. It is an aspect to the show that is neither emphasized nor denied by the cast. If I found anything lacking from an impeccable production, it would be that the drug use mentioned in the play could be explored by the cast a little more. My question might be, if these characters are doing the things mentioned, to what extent? And to that extent, how does it affect these characters physically? What might they be trying to numb through using these substances? How does all this physically impact the moment to moment action of the play? Ultimately though, beyond that one little nitpick, I entered the space finding a brick wall, that wall had openings, and like the show’s characters, once I was inside, I came into contact with the human experience, in all its complexity.
This production of The Aliens is my favorite so far of the calendar year. It is a strong opening for the UND season, and on a scale of “Pass” or “You have to see this show!”, I definitely am leaning at a near perfect “You have to see this show!” Be sure to buy tickets ahead of time because this shows is selling out quickly.
This show runs at Burtness Theatre in the black box theatre at 7:30pm until Saturday, October 3rd. Tickets are $15 for adults, $5 for students. Box Office: 701-777-2587
Tags: Annie Baker, Burtness Theater, Burtness Theatre, Champagne Dreams Productions, Conduit Theater, Conduit Theatre, Darin Kerr, Janessa, Janessa J, Janessa J Champagne, Janessa Jaye, Janessa Jaye Champagne, Jared Fladeland, Miss Jaye, The Aliens, UND Theater, UND Theater Arts, UND Theatre, UND Theatre Arts, World of Champagne