Sunday, March 15, 2020

The Aliens

You might expect this topic to be visitors from outer space, but it could not be further from the truth: it is the title of a play we saw recently. Live theater has been the one art form that has not flourished in Santa Fe. In our two decades here, one after another promising theater company has failed. The singular exception has been Ironweed Productions. Artistic director Scott Harrison has miraculously managed to produce a few first-rate dramas every year since 2005. He has selected plays that he feels are “rooted in the American experience” and has used local New Mexican talent and whatever modest venue was available. We have missed a few productions but those that we have seen have never disappointed us. This is theater on the level of the best of off-Broadway. 

Charles Isherwood, critic for the New York Times, called “The Aliens” the best play of the year in 2010 when it came out. The setting is the fenced back yard of a coffee shop in a small town in Vermont. Here two thirtyish men, a high school and a college dropout, hang out discussing music, poetry, and life, when a high school student, newly hired by the coffee shop, joins them.

This is essentially a character study. In a note in the text, playwright Annie Baker stated that at least one-third of her play should be silent, uncomfortably so. The slow pace, with long pauses for smoking and looking out at nothing in particular, makes it somewhat awkward for the audience, but it gives one a chance to think and take in all the insights we are being fed.

Here in Santa Fe a bare room was turned into a small theater with the seats on risers before a set consisting of a fence, shed, a couple of chairs, a picnic table, and garbage pails.  All were used to such good effect that you could practically smell the food coming out of the kitchen.

This is a play that depends as much on the actors and director as it does on the script, and it is written as such. Here it is carried by local talent.  The director for the Ironweed production was actress Lynn Goodwin, a graduate of Yale, (BA Theater) Columbia (MFA Writing) and UCLA (Screenwriting).  The cast featured Matt Sanford, Niko'a Salas, and Mickey Dolan.

For me it was enjoyable watching the performance of Matt Sanford since I wrote about him some time ago when he was heading the program of training teenagers in the backstage arts, at the Lensic Performing Arts Center here in Santa Fe.  He has since become the Lensic stage manager, but I had no idea that he was also an accomplished actor. 

Niko’a Salas is credited in the program as “a local actor, writer, and creation craving creative”.  He turned in a startlingly athletic, as well as emotionally intense, performance.

Mickey Dolan is a 2017 graduate of the New Mexico School for the Arts which was founded as a charter school just a decade ago and has become one of the top-rated high schools in the U.S. On stage his subtle transition from an insecure 15-year-old trying to observe the rules of a boss who doesn’t want any loiterers around to an admirer of the older men was completely convincing. 

There was tragedy and uplifting moments.  Though the two men would be defined as bums, they show that everyone has worth. For me the most telling line was “Everyone is a genius and no one is”.  You have heard one hand washes the other.  We all need people to help us along the way.  No one makes it on their own. Near the end the boy plays the guitar abysmally and sings likewise, one of the men tells him so lovingly, “that was great, you are going to go far, really”.  You can see that it has given the boy confidence that he never had before.

The first act is exposition and setting up of the concept. We felt bad for a couple who left before the second act. They missed what turned out to be a moving morality play. My father loved opera and when he gave me his tickets he always said stay until the end that is when you will hear the best aria.  In “The Aliens” it was definitely worth waiting for!

“The Aliens” can still be seen in Santa Fe this coming Thursday through Sunday.

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