Did American playwright Annie Baker’s award-winning play The Aliens blow my mind to kingdom come? No, it did not. Did it linger in my brain for several days afterwards? Yes, it did. In fact, it summoned up a great deal of mental fireworks.
The Aliens is set in the back area of a coffee house where two 30-something dropouts whittle away their days discussing life n’ stuff.
A young man working at the coffee house appears and asks them to move on. But they soon realise they have much in common, and each of their personal tragedies are revealed.
There’s a great deal of nothing said in The Aliens. Character’s staring endlessly into the middle distance serves as a far more powerful tool than words ever will. That’s Beckett. That’s the mighty pregnant pause carrying the inexpressible weight of the human condition. Well, we can’t ask language to do that, can we? It will only stuff things up and get us all confused.
Although the director of this production, Nadia Tass says in the program notes, “…it clings to every moment and inhibits the stage like words of a Shakespearean play.” Sadly, it’s nothing like Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s world is engendered only by words, millions of them, and that’s why we go weak at the knees at the mention of his name.
So why do we not emulate him today? Some have tried, of course, and most have failed. But is simply it because there is a lack of talent out there? Or audiences now value ‘realism’ above poetry. Or, even worse, are today’s audience unable to cope with lengthy paragraphs of unbroken text?
If it is realism that we do very well now, then all three actors – Brett Cousins, Brett Ludeman and David Harrison – are remarkably good at it. Their performances actually carry a script of well-orchestrated silences punctuated with words. It has also been directed with a disciplined modesty. Tass doesn’t wish to prove her brilliance here, and is more interested in telling a story effectively.
In the end, The Aliens is a two hour lamentation on the devolution of culture, suggesting that we are all very poor and alienated because of it.
The only time our minds are opened up to new possibilities is when Jasper reads out a section of his novel. But that’s prose, not theatre. This may be an interesting reflection of John Cleese’s own lamentation of why there are very few plot driven comedies today and the only good writing is being done by stand-ups.
Despite all this lamenting, The Aliens is still an engaging piece of performance because it pushes those essential buttons, it even left me wondering what might have happened to theatre if Beckett had named his highly influential masterpiece, Waiting for Shakespeare and not Godot. What, with God being an entity of few words and a visual talent for throwing 4th of July fireworks.
Red Stitch Actors Theatre, 2 Chapel St, St Kilda VIC. On now to September 24. Too book, go to www.redstich.net or 03 95338033.