A new season cometh and bringeth with it a transition away from the dark comedies of winter to the lighter-feeling dramas of summer. Playing now at Stage West Theatre is The Aliens, a rock ’n’ roll odyssey that’s smoking with dramaturgical devices.
In a dusty lot behind a New England coffee shop, talented guitarist Jasper (Joey Folsom) is chain-smoking between his broken-hearted tête-à-têtes with fellow burnout KJ (Jake Buchanan), who expresses sympathy while seeming to be on another planet. Jasper’s ex-trashing comes to a halt when the shop’s gawky new hired hand, Evan (Parker Gray), steps outside with the trash, making him a rather thin but substantial target for Jasper’s prodding. KJ’s genial nature mixed with Jasper’s offbeat artistic vision of the world keeps Evan coming back for more conversations with these boys of the backlot, erupting in an odd sort of friendship by the time Fourth-of-July fireworks slice their summer — and their time together — in half.
An interesting test within this performance is the switching of roles by Folsom and Buchanan. On Thursdays and Saturdays, Folsom plays Jasper while Buchanan acts the part of KJ. The two switch roles for Friday and Sunday performances. Other commitments keep me from attending a Friday or Sunday performance this season, but I can’t imagine Buchanan or Folsom acting out the other character’s lines with as much ease. These two actors physically embodied their characters in an honest way, representing two very different sides of the same addictive-personality coin. One is fragile, the other hardened. Both portrayed a natural connection to their characters, one that seemed almost overly comfortable.
Playwright Annie Baker has written a strong script, riddling her dialogue with intentionally long pauses to let us rest uneasily in the realities of human vulnerability, a style of scriptwriting I wish we’d see more local theaters pursuing. But with so many pauses, her writing lives and dies by the abilities of the actors onstage, and in this production the big moments felt dialed down. What should have been a screaming apex was sincerely attempted but not loud enough to land us theatergoers squarely where we needed to be: removed from our seats and on stage with the emotions of the performers. That’s not to say there wasn’t good character acting on the part of each person, but crowd favorite Buchanan remained emotionally detached even when he came into close physical and emotional contact with another actor. The most character development came from Gray, who left the audience silent when he went ballistic. Gray’s emotional intensity was unexpected but much needed. Had there been more attention to the sound landscape during one of his tirades, the audience would have gravitated toward this character with more warmth because the other two actors and the overall soundscape didn’t complement Gray’s affectatious moments as seamlessly as possible.
The key props were the cigarettes, but this design element impacted the performance element of this production, too. I applaud Stage West for flashing their artistic integrity by using real cigarettes as opposed to imitation or herbal smokes, and despite my discomfort at the first scent of tobacco, I appreciated that the company made use of our most underutilized theatrical sense: smell. A whiff of a cigarette onstage encourages the audience to remember its spectatorial gaze and to feel closer to the smoking actor. Unfortunately, this controversial prop tends to encourage or weaken character performances when it becomes a crutch. In this performance, there was an odor of overdone emotional reliance on the cigarette.
Littered with rusty chairs, barrels, a dilapidated picnic table at center stage left and a back porch to the coffee shop around center stage right, the set design made for effective use of space. A separation in the center of a wooden-fence perimeter made for slinky entrances and exits tuned to the sound of grunge rock. Garret Storms’ costumes achieved an aesthetic that could be taken as very ’90s- or very Urban Outfitters-inspired, which played up the gritty passiveness of the characters from head-to-toes kicking around in the sandy dirt onstage. The sound between song transitions buttressed Baker’s long pauses somewhat, but again, more bravado in sound designing would’ve been of great benefit to the performance as a whole.
Director Dana Schultes nails the art of navel-gazing characters, exposing the meekness of masculinity and experimenting with a hodgepodge of lyrically loopy personalities. She has tackled a difficult script and did so with a rather ambitious agenda of switching character roles, but doing so made the impassioned potential of this play less dramatic than desired.
The Aliens, Thru June 4 at Stage West Theatre, 821 W Vickery Blvd, FW. $17-35. 817-784-9378.