Monday, March 26, 2012

Review: The Aliens at Hyde Park Theatre

Sometimes when I am sitting in my seat, waiting to take in a new play at the Hyde Park Theatre, I sort of steel myself. Not at all in a wincing-at-the-prospect kind of way. More like a fasten-your-seatbelts kind of way. Because as anyone who regularly attends plays there knows, HPT Artistic Director Ken Webster is mighty fond of taking the audience on dark and bumpy rides, adventures steeped in rich language and terrifying turns. For example—The Pillowman, A Behanding in Spokane, and St. Nicholas.

More recently, Webster’s been letting a little more light in, thanks in large part to the production over the past couple of years of a trio of plays by Annie Baker, a young and tremendously gifted playwright whose work has been performed internationally to much-deserved critical acclaim. I’m so grateful to Hyde Park Theatre for putting Baker on my radar. When I saw the first production of her work there, Body Awareness, I was bowled over, smitten, and so hungry for more I saw it a second time. Next came Circle Mirror Transformation, which, as with Body Awareness, prompts much laughter, some of it the nervous variety.

And now we have Baker's The Aliens, which opened last week. I’m seeing a pattern here—not just in Webster’s love of Baker, but my own. It’s easy enough to see how the play suits Webster’s taste—certainly there’s a darkness here, too. But a weird sort of light overshadows the darkness, an oxymoronic reverse shadow.

On the surface, we have three characters—two dudes who could be fairly labeled losers, and a third, younger man (not quite a man, actually) who shifts from being outraged and frustrated by their antics to fascinated, hypnotized and, it seems, oddly inspired to follow in their footsteps.

Let’s talk about the acting—Jude Hickey as KJ and Joey Hood as Jasper play the older two, a pair with a long friendship that seems glued together by much daydreaming and little in the way of measurable success. The entire play takes place in an alley behind the Green Sheep Coffee Shop—a truly stunning set created by Ia Ensterä--  where KJ and Jasper wax faux-philosophical about what was and what one day might be, while never really going anywhere. Hickey and Hood are two of Austin’s mightiest stage talents, and The Aliens lends further proof to this truth. They have a natural, easy chemistry that makes their characters’ friendship utterly believable, and watching them perform is a true joy.

New to the Hyde Park stage is Jon Cook, in the role of Evan, the Green Sheep employee who at first tries to shoo KJ and Jasper away, only to find himself eventually pulled into their drama. Really, this play could just as easily been called Circle Mirror Transformation, too, as the end loops back to the beginning, and Evan begins to ape his elders in the apparent hope of turning himself into one of them. Cook, a UT senior, does a truly amazing turn here—his face is so expressive, at turns so naïve, open, curious, confused, joyful and torn, as he totally nails the sort of real life coming of age characters that haunt coffee shops everywhere.

As a writer/reader/English major I have the sometimes annoying habit, when taking in a book/play/movie of automatically rooting around a work, as I am experiencing it, trying to pluck out meaning and metaphor on the spot. I know, I know, there are worse habits. But allow me an analogy here—sometimes, when you go hear live music, rather than single out the work of the amazing bassist or gifted guitarist, it’s far better to just let yourself be engulfed by the whole of the music. A great band will do that for you, override any hard work your brain is doing to separate out the parts. So it is with The Aliens. I wanted, initially, to carefully dismantle it in my mind, try to figure out where Baker was going, what meaning she hoped for me to extract. But then, pretty much against my will and driven by the outstanding performances of the actors under the direction of Webster, I just settled back and let the story have me.

That was the right choice. Now, if I wish, I can sit here and play with the thing all I want, assign meaning—History repeats. Life strives to suck us into the muck. There is light in the darkness, darkness in the light.—that sort of thing. But I prefer to just keep it whole in my mind as I sit, days later, the portraits of KJ and Jasper and Evan still burned vivid in my mind. 

The Aliens plays at Hyde Park Theatre Thursdays-Saturdays through April 21, 2012.  For more info and tickets go here.

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