by Jillian Carter
Walking into the Haymarket Theatre opening night of The Aliens, I was not at all sure what to expect. I had never heard of The Aliens, or the playwright Annie Baker. I was familiar with the Charles Bukowski poem of the same title that inspired it, but that was all. It was refreshing to enter a dark theatre with few expectations or preconceived notions.
The set that greeted us (designed by director/actor/ Christian Novotny, who also designed the sound and costumes) was realistic and intimate, perfectly capturing the essence of the employee smoke break area behind a coffee shop, replete with creaky picnic table, which was practically a character itself, with its squeaky little comments, and a lawn chair that had seen better days. Even if there had been a full house, the set was inviting enough that the audience could feel they were a part of the scenes.
That is an important quality for this play, which lives in its silences and pauses, the nonverbal communication between characters, and the lack of communication between them. Luckily, actor Trey Martinez (KJ) occupies those spaces with verve. Here is an actor who throws himself fully into his character in each moment onstage, making it difficult for the audience to take their eyes off him. There were moments I found myself laughing louder at his antics than necessary, because the vulnerability of the character made me want to reassure him that he was funny and that I was paying attention, even if his friend was not. Martinez’s KJ was so alive that I expected him to break the fourth wall at any moment. If the other characters had taken another 30 seconds to enter or to respond to his attention-seeking ways, it felt like he would have turned to the audience to find validation in his existence.
I will admit that I was not enthralled by the beginning of the play. It seemed like a script I would have fallen in love with when I was 19, which is in fact what happened to Director Christian Novotny his sophomore year at UNL. On the surface, The Aliens starts off as a go-nowhere story about two burnouts who have nothing to do and no one else to talk to. However, by the third scene, I was hooked. The heart of the play is the relationships between the characters, which didn’t come to life immediately. Toward the end of the first act, though, there is a gorgeous moment between KJ and Jasper (Novotny), which was deftly created by the actors and the director to reveal a real love and understanding between the two. From that moment on, I was fully invested.
However invested I was, though, I was not prepared for my heart to be broken in the second act. Promotional materials for the production warned that the play was “quietly devastating” and “takes a turn,” but I still was not ready for it. No spoilers, but when KJ reveals a personal story from his childhood, I was bereft. There was an audible inhale from the rest of the audience as well, so I know they were feeling it too.
The lighting design, by Andrew Roberts, was simple and effective, and the music choices were quirky and appropriate. Taken together, the artistic and technical direction combined to make a complete experience.
The remainder of the small cast was made up by Director Christian Novotny, who brought an understated elegance to genius Jasper and Nick Howard, whose whole body conveyed nervousness and naivete from his first entrance as Evan. My one real complaint with the play is that Evan’s character arc did not seem fully realized. Maybe it was because the passage of time was somewhat unclear, and maybe it was the script, but Evan never seemed as developed as KJ and Jasper.
Overall, I would say this play is definitely worth seeing. There were moments that will stay with me for life. And if that isn’t a good enough reason to go to the theatre, I don’t know what is.
If you go: Remaining performances for The Aliens are August 2 and 3 at 7:30 PM and August 4 at 2:00 PM at the Haymarket Theatre, located at 803 Q Street. Tickets are available online and at the box office prior to the shows.
Jillian Carter is a playwright, actress, and director, as well as a mother of four. She is the managing editor of Appearing Locally and the community theatre columnist for Lincoln Journal Star’s Ground Zero.
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