Directed by Gunnar Manchester ’15, The Aliens by playwright Annie Baker examines the shifting friendship between three men as they spend their summer days lounging (or working) in the backyard of a local restaurant. Starring Ciaran Walsh ’15 as college dropout KJ, Sam James ’17 as awkward high school senior Evan, and Dan Peeples ’17 as aged high school dropout Jasper, the play provides an intimate look at the sometimes silent moments of their relationship. It’s a coming of age story that doesn’t shy away from stillnesses and shared silences.
For Manchester, this drama offered a change of pace from last spring’s upbeat, musical lens on similar themes.
He remembers, “Last year I directed The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, which was a completely different animal, and not just because it was a musical. But as cartoonish and fun as Spelling Bee is, it shares some themes with The Aliens. Both plays focus on the challenges of growing up, as examined through the relationships between adults and children. When I decided to direct The Aliens, it was mostly because it was so different from anything I had directed. I wanted to challenge myself, and I wanted to challenge the actors I cast.”
The characters in this play tolerate boredom as part of their daily routine. They breathe it in and exhale wisps of ambition that quickly evaporate in the hot July air.
While they aren’t academically “successful” in the same ways that Bates students might sympathize with, the experiences these characters go through aren’t too far away from paths that could belong to any of us. They aren’t uneducated individuals, and Manchester hopes that the development of these characters acts as a useful reminder to Bates students that college isn’t the only important component of our youth.
“I hope this play will resonate well with a college audience,” Manchester explains. “It does touch on the topic of college, and the importance of education […] It’s important to realize that college is not the ‘be-all end-all’ (something especially relevant to us graduating seniors), and that a life is so much more than where you’ve gone to school or what work you did there. Too often we get so wrapped up in our own lives and our work, especially around this time of year, and this play will hopefully be a refreshing chill pill for the audience.”
There’s no doubt that this play wouldn’t pack as strong of a punch if it weren’t for the synthesis of some superbly chosen talents. I haven’t seen enough of the work of these three actors to comment on how their roles compare to previous ones in their Bates careers, but I left the production questioning whether they were playing very familiar versions of themselves or if they were in fact doing their job incredibly well. The very fact that this question even entered my mind speaks to the performance quality and commitment of these performers.
The set, with all its rugged simplicity, underscores the life setbacks of these characters’ own difficulties. An unpainted wooden fence cuts diagonally through the space, making Black Box Theater seem even more intimate than usual. A picnic table and two large trash bins become the characters’ daybeds, punching bags, and podiums. In the tight space, these set pieces have nearly as much physical presence as the actors themselves; consequently, they are sad reflections of how the characters see themselves at this point in their life.
It’s not easy to present characters with such low self-esteem in an engaging way. Their lack of self-interest is deterring, to say the least, but Manchester manages to harness the talents of these actors in the small performance space in a way that makes their internal skepticism and external mumblings far more fascinating than you might expect. The Aliens is a perfect way to conclude this semester’s demonstration of student theater talents.