Life’s most profound moments can arrive at the most unlikely of times.
Such is the case in playwright Annie Baker’s minimalistic 2010 drama “The Aliens,” a work that depends as much on silence as on dialogue to drill down to weighty existential questions. Set in a small Vermont town, the action takes place around a picnic table in the back of a coffee shop, where two 30-something friends welcome an awkward teen into their circle of trust.
KJ and Jasper are perennial bums, proud underachievers adrift in their 30s who’ve made a lifestyle out of unemployment and isolation. Evan Shemerdine is a high school student with a gig at a coffee shop who’s tasked with telling the two loiterers the area behind the café is for employees only.
“It’s such a simple story,” said John Jurcheck, the actor who plays KJ in the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company’s upcoming production of “The Aliens.”
“It’s just two guys hanging out behind a coffee shop and they bring this other guy into their world. Yet, it’s about so much more than that.”
Indeed, Baker depends on a simple premise to explore a menu of pretty substantial themes, questions that run from the fine points of Charles Bukowski’s poetry to a more general sense of ennui and alienation (hence the play’s title). She explores those questions with a minimal amount of theatrical pageantry and excess. Case in point: The stage directions specify that silence should reign during at least a third of the show, and the back-and-forth dialogue between characters KJ, Jasper (Casey Andree) and Evan Shelmerdine (Tucker Johnston) make up the entirety of the plot.
While artistically bold and daring, that kind of stripped-down dynamic makes any version of “The Aliens” a special kind of creative challenge. The crew behind BETC’s upcoming production has had to adjust to Baker’s purposefully pared-down vision, and the results have been eye-opening.
“The play begins with a period of silence. There’s no dialogue,” said director Rebecca Remaly, who’s also a founding BETC company member. “The audience is witnessing an incredible way of telling extraordinary stories through ordinary moments.”
That’s par for the course for Baker, whose similarly intimate show “The Flick” won the Pulitzer Prize in 2014. Past works in the playwright’s three-piece “Vermont Cycle” show a similar love for nuance and minimalism; shows such as 2009’s “Circle Mirror Transformation” depend on carefully plotted character interaction for their effect.
The same goes for “The Aliens,” where the playwright’s prescribed stretches of quiet make the existing dialogue all the more critical to the story, Remaly said, and that’s where timing and delivery make a big difference.
“We’re learning that it’s really a domino effect,” Remaly said. “The dialogue is so simple and straightforward, yet if you change even a little of one line of a three-sentence exchange, by the end it profoundly affects where you started from.”
The structure has offered just as many rewards as challenges for Jurcheck, whose role in the show also includes several musical moments. The character of KJ breaks out into song throughout the plays, but these aren’t the catchy tunes of your average Broadway musical. Instead, they’re arrhythmic, nonlinear ditties, unaccompanied songs that are just as tricky as the show’s carefully plotted balance of words and silence.
“For my character, the songs offer a way to make sense of his life,” Jurcheck said. “They let him express these feelings that he has that have never been accepted in regular society. They let him experiment with ideas, release tensions in his life.”
The character’s off-kilter tunes hint at the show’s larger questions about exclusion and expectations in modern society, Jurcheck said. While navigating the show’s tricky fusion of everyday jargon and unbroken silence has posed technical hurdles as an actor, the ultimate effect is a creative reward for both the cast and audience.
“There’s a lot of power in silence. To sit and to know that people are watching you being silent, it does really interesting things. It forces the audience to listen to their own voices inside their heads — it can even make people a little angry,” he added, a clear tone of joy creeping into his voice. “To play with that, and to affect people in that way, it’s really fun, it’s really exciting.”