Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Aliens with Extraordinary Skills

Photo/Carol Rosegg

Saviana Stanescu is walking a very narrow tightrope with Aliens with Extraordinary Skills, a play which deals with serious issues in a very lighthearted way. And yet, she's right to forgo a safety net: propelling herself into the void, Stanescu creates a beautiful, vibrant world, centered around two immigrants--clowns--who face deportation. Nadia (the tremendous Natalia Payne) is the naive heroine, who has high-definition dreams of Sex in the City, a wide-eyed wonder of a character who fled her homeland, Moldovia, because the people there were too poor to be made happy. Meanwhile, her friend, Borat (Seth Fisher) is hung up in the small details, finding it hard to crack a smile when others take advantage of him, and even harder to separate his feelings of love from his necessities for a green card.

Nadia ends up living with the attitudinal Lupita (a very fresh Jessica Pimentel), a nightclub's "entertainment professional" who fiercely demands the rights to her own dreams, one Manolo Blahnik at a time. And it's here, in a Washington Heights at least as real as the one in In The Heights, that she meets Bob (Kevin Isola, a real card), a slacker-philosopher who has already made the mistake of turning his back on his dream. Romance ensues, but sweetly so, for Stanescu takes Bob's advice: "When you are forced to pay closer attention to people's words, you actually communicate better." By focusing on language, Stanescu excuses the liberties she takes with some of the more fanciful plot devices, and her deliberately inelegant choices create some truly original and unfettered moments, moments where language grows fuzzy and swoons: "I want to . . . sit on a couch together, drinking vodka, watching TV . . . Making out . . . Making love . . . A LOT. Until we're dizzy-dizzy, but good-dizzy-dizzy. I just want to love you. To spend the rest of my life with you."

Also keeping this big three-ring "Circus called Life" in motion is the highly acrobatic director, Tea Alagic, who brightly maintains Nadia's childish perspective even in the midst of the play's darker elements. Kris Stone's set is minimal--bleak, actually--but colorful lights are often projected onto the stage (in conjunction with Gina Scherr's lighting design), and these keep us locked in the realm of imagination. Jennifer Moeller also helps, juxtaposing elements of both worlds into the costumes, a visualization that Alagic takes a step further by allowing some of the action to take place in the aisles, where the fanciful characters stand in direct contrast to the dull audience. Rounding things out are the real clowns of the show, two jazzical, fast-talking INS agents (Gian Murray Gianino and Shrine Babb) who menace Nadia's nightmares even as they maintain the illusion of Stanescu's storybook world, a world that begins with a balloon-animal's parable.

This constantly shocking sweetness is highly effective and it achieves the most important goal of a play: it shifts our perspective. Whatever your stance on immigration, Stanescu's upbeat mood overwrites it. Borat drives a cab just as well as his alterego, "Steve from Tennessee," and his heart beats just as fiercely as Lupita's. In a craigslist conversation, spoken smiley faces and all, we are all equal, and dressed up like a hamburger or soda, we are meant to be together, for we are all--especially this play--extraordinary.


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