Genuine, quirky and at times raw, SUDS’ production of Annie Baker’s The Aliens is a poignant reflection on youth, love and loss.
The Cellar Theatre stage gives us a glimpse into the rundown “staff only” area out back of a Vermont coffee shop. Jasper (Henry Hulme) is a novelist who never finished high school and KJ (Georgia Condon) is a college drop-out. They while away their days with poetry and music. Jasper smokes, KJ drinks tea. Their band is called, among other things, The Aliens.
Evie (Sophia Bryant) enters Jasper and KJ’s lair as an awkward and innocent counterpoint to these worldly souls. She works at the Vermont coffee shop and is, like the audience, transfixed by the idle musings of these two characters loitering near the bins out back.
Throughout the first half we become invested in the peaks and troughs of these characters’ friendship and anxieties. We learn about Jasper’s novel, KJ’s struggles with mental health and Evie’s college plans, as we enter into this strange but familiar world.
Hulme’s Jasper is self-absorbed but undeniably charismatic. It’s easy to forgive him the conceit of reading aloud a sex scene from his novel which is very clearly about himself. Condon is enthralling, at her best when navigating KJ’s sudden and gripping emotional lurches which leave the audience breathless. The vivid chemistry between these partners in crime drives the witty dialogue of the first half.
At the end of Act 1, the cast of three form a merry ensemble that fills the stage and the theatre with their jaunty, cathartic and unorthodox celebration of the 4th of July. We end the first half joyful and transfixed by fireworks.
The lights rise slowly after intermission on a long silence, punctuated by discordant notes plucked on Jasper’s guitar. Something foundational to the world behind this Vermont coffee shop has gone. The fitful grief of this unexpected loss is foundational to the emotional depth of the second half.
While Bryant’s Evie is initially a single dimensional parody of teenage disaffection, her empathy and anguish in Act 2 is compelling. Bryant is brilliant in portraying this growth in contrast to the stasis of the rest of the play.
Bleak Beckettian absurdity is woven through the show—sometimes in direct homage, as when KJ shakes a pebble loose from her shoe, but more often in the general tone of the piece, with its uncomfortably long silences and raw truths that elicit harsh barks of laughter.
Many of the show’s best moments follow this formula—an absurd line and a tense emotional reveal relieved by a comedic reply or physical offer, usually from Evie.
However, the formula sometimes undermines the play’s more complex moments. The cast moves on without forcing the audience to sit in the aftermath of uncomfortable, tragic or flooring revelations which should shape the emotional journey of the play.
Nevertheless, in the final scene, the characters maintain an earnest optimism for their world. It is moving, even if we can’t quite believe that Evie is “gonna go far”.
The Aliens plays at the Cellar Theatre on Saturday 31 March, 7pm.