Review: The Aliens (Outhouse Theatre Co)

outhouseVenue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Aug 25 – Sep 19, 2015
Playwright: Annie Baker
Director: Craig Baldwin
Cast: James Bell, Jeremy Waters, Ben Wood
Image by Rupert Reid

Theatre review
Social outcasts are a sad fact of life. Communities are built upon identities that will inevitably exclude “undesirables”, some of whom can form sub-cultures, and others are left to their own devices. Annie Baker’s extraordinary The Aliens features the invisible and ignored; people judged to be of no value to economies, and are indeed, a burden to our gross domestic product. We refuse to acknowledge their contributions to society, because they contradict our definitions of what is valuable, and are considered to be of no benefit to our selfish needs. Baker’s writing is the most sensitive and tender piece of theatre one can wish to encounter. It presents downtrodden lives with an effortless humanity, looking at its neglected personalities and all their open wounds that fail to heal, with a persuasive compassion. Baker turns her strangers into intimately familiar beings, by revealing their pains and desires in a way that we can immediately recognise, and by her deft transformations of peculiarities into charming eccentricities.

Direction by Craig Baldwin is idiosyncratic and powerful. Every line of dialogue is replete with poignancy, along with the many purposeful silent pauses that occur to disarm and entrance. The play is rich with subtexts and references that resonate with great effectiveness, to communicate its message of acceptance and social inclusion. The vulnerability of its characters is portrayed with an unexpected dignity, so that their foibles and weaknesses cease to be strange or reprehensible. There is little in terms of narrative in the piece, but the relationships between its three men are carefully harnessed and perfectly realised. The unusual and intense representation of platonic love between men may be rarely seen on stage, but we believe every second of their intimate friendship, and it moves us from beginning to end.

KJ masks his sorrows with substances and laughter. Played by Ben Wood, the role ranges from being very silly to deeply sorrowful, and the actor runs that entire gamut of emotive and technical demands with wonderful fluency. There is a playfulness in Wood’s approach that urges us to meet KJ’s stories with an open heart, and the results are marvellously affecting. Jeremy Waters as Jasper, is heartbroken and heartbreaking. Coupling a beautiful innocence with impressive presence, Waters’ performance is irresistible, and also completely arresting. His style is understated yet robust, and charismatic beyond belief. In the role of awkward teenager Evan is James Bell, who lifts our spirits with a simple but accurate depiction of purity, and whose gentle approach provides a dimension of aching sentimentality that gives the show its exquisite melancholia.

Also noteworthy are the production’s visual design. Hugh O’Connor’s work on set and costumes is restrained but transportative. Its Americaness is convincing without being deafening, and his vibrant use of colour is a necessary and welcome counterbalance to an otherwise depressive environment. Lighting designer Benjamin Brockman’s adventurous engagement with the incessant atmospheric shifts of the text, is a potent element that expertly guides us through the complex quandary of emotions that is The Aliens.

Anyone can fall, because nobody is invincible. In Annie Baker’s play, we see the kindness that people can have for each other, but also the care that is missing in much of our lives. It discloses the nature of how we do or do not look after each other, and evokes notions of unconditional love that many have forgotten. The outsiders of The Aliens connect in the most meaningful way possible, and watching their story unfold brings to mind our own interactions with the world; where we are successful, and where we flounder. As Australia’s attention to economic development becomes more obsessive than ever before, our interest in the ones who fall behind must grow accordingly. Instead, our political votes go to those who claim to protect our financial well being, and those who demonstrate consciousness beyond money, are struggling more and more with each passing election.

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