Of all the shows that are on right now, The Aliens is the one to catch

Annie Baker's The Aliens is playing at the Havana Theatre in a production by Sticks and Stones.

Evan (Teo Saefkow) gazes at fireworks in The Aliens. (Photo by Matt Reznek)

This production of Annie Baker’s The Aliens is one of the best shows of the season. Go see it. I love virtually everything about it and the tickets only cost seventeen bucks.

Baker’s script is exquisite. In it, Jasper and KJ, a couple of slackers, hang out in the staff area behind a restaurant somewhere in Vermont. KJ admits to being 30. The only staff member who ever shows up is a 17-year-old named Evan.

Jasper’s girlfriend has broken up with him. KJ can’t drink anymore because the last time he did he went on a bender and stopped taking his meds. Evan thinks these guys are cool, partly because Jasper is working on a novel and he and KJ used to have a band—sort of; they spent a lot of time coming up with cool band names, including The Limp Wrists and The Aliens. Mostly, it seems, Evan likes Jasper and KJ because they include him.

A whole lot of the beauty of the script arises from Baker’s spacious use of time. She gives us long pauses and longer silences—often followed by bursts of overlapping speech. So, you know, it’s like real life. Baker liberates us from conventional, time-driven notions of dramatic tension and entertainment; she invites us to share real time with her characters and to meditate on their humanity.

The play takes place over a short span of summer days and, when the Fourth of July fireworks go off, Evan turns to gaze at them. As he did so in this production, he was standing just a couple of feet from me and I, in turn, gazed at him. Stared. It was so luxurious. I was so touched by his innocence.

There are darker feelings in all of this, too, and a whole lot of humour. Jasper claims to be unfazed by his break-up: “I don’t need to talk about it. I actually feel bad for her.” But, as he is speaking, something overwhelming silences him. When he’s verbal again, he says he couldn’t breathe. “I feel fantastic, though.”

And there’s crazy quirkiness. Out of nowhere, describing his ex’s new boyfriend, Jasper says, “He makes his own pants.” Maybe you have to be there, but it’s hilarious. And KJ talks about how he couldn’t stop saying the word ladder when he was a kid. Then he proceeds to say ladder again and again and again, accumulating and releasing a staggering burden of sorrow.

The Aliens, which premiered in 2010, is rooted in the specifics of our time. Its characters are alienated because they are baffled, isolated millenials. They’re not making it in the commodity culture. And they’re male, so it’s especially hard for them to find intimacy. (Evan disappears for a bit to teach at a summer camp. When he returns, he enthuses, “The kids were cute”, then he remembers himself and adds, “Or whatever.”) But loneliness isn’t just period-specific and who can’t relate to it?

Director Kevin Bennett and his interpretive team are doing an excellent job of realizing Baker’s vision. Production designer Stephanie Wong has turned the industrial doors on the Havana Theatre’s back wall into a credible restaurant exit by giving them a striped awning and dabbing that awning with pigeon shit. She has arranged the seating so that the characters can walk through the audience. And, above a rotting picnic table, she has strung some coloured lights, adding just the right touch of lyricism.

Bennett has cast extremely well. Everybody in the company (Tim Howe as Jasper, Zac Scott as KJ, and Teo Saefkow as Evan) rises to the meditative nature of Baker’s timing by delivering performances of microscopic authenticity.

In Howe’s hands, there’s something spookily testosterone-driven, even predatory, in the way that Jasper relates to Evan. When Jasper says, “I am a living piece of trailer trash” and Evan laughs, Jasper silences the kid with a tiny shift in his gaze. Saefkow says all sorts of things with Evan’s inability to speak. And Scott finds the ordinariness in KJ’s extreme mental states.

Throughout this piece, even when there was silence, I heard the music of thinking.

I rarely have such a good time at the theatre. I wrote in my notebook, “YAY! I’M SO HAPPY!” Referring to the characters, I also wrote, “I LOVE THEM LIKE REAL PEOPLE.”

THE ALIENS By Annie Baker. Directed by Kevin Bennett. Produced by Sticks and Stones Theatre. At the Havana Theatre on Saturday, January 27. Continues until February 4.

Tickets.

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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