Theatre in Space is staging Pulitzer Prize-winning Annie Baker’s The Aliens through May 29 in a lot behind Propeller Brewery on Gottingen Street which perfectly suits a 2010 play about a trio of disaffected, artsy youth.
This is indie theatre at its best: an imaginative, experiential location, experienced and passionate local actors and a contemporary play about love and death and what it means to be a dreamer drop-out in America today. (Unfortunately the short run is sold out except for a few standing room, PWYC, cash-only tickets.)
The Aliens is about 30-something best friends Jasper, a brilliant, high-school drop-out who is writing a novel, and KJ, a university drop-out on the edge of sanity. They hang out behind a local coffee shop to smoke and talk philosophy, poetry and music. One day an awkward barista opens the back door to take out the garbage.
Evan, 17, unformed and shy, tells Jasper and KJ they are not allowed to be there. However, he is drawn like a moth to flame to their rule-breaking energy, teasing friendship and artistry,.
Baker creates a lot of laugh-out-loud comedy in the collision of viewpoints and characters particularly in the first act. There is humour lying in just how these people speak to each other – obliquely, tangentially. Baker uses silence very effectively; watching Evan struggling to open a package of cigarettes is a highlight.
Director Jake Planinc has cast well. Taylor Olson, who often but not exclusively plays edgy, messed-up loose cannons (Joyride, Bone Cage), is very strong as KJ in both his fiercest, most annoying moments and his heart-broken ones. Baker asks the actor playing KJ to say one word over and over again with different emotions over a long period of time; Olson nails it.
Henricus Gielis is unusually charming as Jasper, the troubled, taciturn writer who recalls rebel American authors like Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac. He loves American poet Charles Bukowski, named a “laureate of American lowlife” by Time Magazine in 1986. Bukowski’s poem The Aliens is printed in the program and Aliens was one of Jasper’s and KJ’s band names.
The chemistry between Olson and Gielus is dead-on; this friendship is full of badgering, anger and love. The two former bandmates singing a bitter, nonsense song together is also a highlight.
Evan in some ways is the foil to the pals’ disillusioned state and questionable wisdom; however, as played by Sam Vigneault, he is also a charming character – shy with an endearing, tentative smile. Vigneault’s Evan is reticent and somewhat bewildered by life but has an inner strength and courage.
Director Jake Planinc clearly loves and understands the play in terms of its emotional rhythms and style of speech. He makes great use of movement and of the caged entrance to Propeller’s recycling and garbage bins. Music and song are important to The Aliens and all three actors have key, emotive and band-of-merry-men moments of song.
After a rousing, comical first act with a great fourth-of-July finish Baker waffles a bit in Act 2 before bringing the play to a satisfying end. More foreshadowing in Act 1 would have helped.
The Aliens, starting at 7 p.m., is two hours including a 15-minute intermission when people can go indoors to Propeller and use the washroom and/or buy beer. The Staples garage is the rain venue .For information email: email@example.com.
The show cannot be extended; Gielis is off to Ross Creek Centre as a Two Planks and a Passion Theatre summer company member (he played Ewart last year in Schoolhouse) and Vigneault is off to Newfoundland.
Theatre in Space is a new group of emerging professional theatre artists who came together to produce this play. In the group are the three lead actors, Planinc, associate director Koumbie, stage manager Chelsea Dickie, designers Alison Crosby and Jordan Palmer and producer Alex Mills.
This is an urban part of town and, on the night I went, there were the sounds of sirens, a helicopter flying towards the hospital and street folks shouting to one another. The cast handled the roaring helicopter very well!