Irish playwright Sonya Kelly’s How To Keep an Alien, which took the best-production award when it premiered at the Tiger Dublin Fringe in 2014 and is now enjoying its West Coast premiere from Corrib, Portland’s all-Irish theater company, isn’t about flying saucers and little green men. It’s about that other kind of alien – the foreign-born kind, the kind who faces political and sometimes actual walls when trying to move from one nation to another, and who must overcome not only bureaucratic obstacles but also personal ones, the sort we often erect between our desires and our fears.
It’s intriguing, often appealing, and whimsically constructed, like a shifting tower leaning sharply to one side: an odd duck of a play, and I mean it no disrespect when I say it’s a contemporary rom-com, the sort of story that might make a good Hallmark movie if Hallmark movies ever were to recognize the actual and ordinary existence in the world of homosexuality (or, for that matter, the desirability of non-white characters filling any role in a romantic comedy larger than supportive sidekick). I happen to like a good rom-com, and this one has the enormous advantage of being about two lesbians falling in love, but approaching their affair altogether naturally, with no flashing lights of cultural or political importance: just two people going through what people of all sorts all over the world go through every day. The decision to not make a big deal out of the lovers’ gender – to treat it matter-of-factly, as just the way this story goes – is in fact a bigger deal than making a big deal would be.
In this case the two people overtaken by emotional attraction are Sonia, an Irish actor starring in a historical costume drama that she finds ridiculous, and Kate, the show’s Australian stage manager, who is also, in a meta sort of way, the onstage stage manager of How To Keep an Alien, batting back and forth between the reality of the story and the reality of the production. If this sounds confusing, it sometimes is, but usually isn’t.
The story, deftly directed by Corrib artistic director Gemma Whelan, is told mostly through Sonya’s voice, with interjections from Kate and voice-overs from the diary of Kate’s 19th century great-great-grandmother, who undertook the difficult voyage from Ireland to Australia after being evicted from her home in the Irish Midlands. Kate’s GGM acts as a sort of down-to-earth, practical spirit-guide for Sonya, who is smart and funny and smitten but frankly has a little growing-up to do. It’s a big, brash, challenging role, playing Sonya, who rarely has a break in the 80-odd minutes of the play, and Sara Hennessy meet the challenge nicely, with a wryly comic conviction that keeps you interested in the stream-of-consciousness of this galumphing and occasionally exasperating character: Sonya! For god’s sake just take the plane ticket and fly to Australia! Amy Katrina Bryan, as Kate, has much less to do (at least, as a performer: remember, she’s also the show’s actual stage manager) but is a good and likable foil, although I wish I’d seen a little better balance in the writing. What, really, does Kate think about this whole thing? Sonya’s so busy chatting, we never do find out, at least not from Kate herself.
How To Keep an Alien recognizes, briefly, that there are aliens in this world whose plight is vastly more perilous and frightening than that of a couple of theater types from different nations: people who are the targets of political persecution and racially charged political grandstanding, who face hunger and extreme poverty and the possibility of imprisonment or death. Playwright Kelly nods to those distressing realities, and then keeps her eye on this story, about these two relatively fortunate people, and whether they will or won’t overcome the obstacles (including their own hesitance) that are keeping them divided when they so obviously should be joined. All together, now: Learn your lessons, Jane Austen-style, and draw this story to a satisfactory conclusion.
The peripatetic Corrib is performing Alien in one of the little studios operated by Subashini Ganesan, Portland’s creative laureate, at the Inner East Side’s lively performance space New Expressive Works, which is a story in itself. The intimate space, which for this show has risers holding somewhere between 30 and 40 seats, works well for this intimate and simply designed show.
A PAIR OF POTENTIAL ACES opening this week:
Crossing Mnisose. Mary Kathryn Nagle’s new play, commissioned by Portland Center Stage for its Northwest Stories series, takes a fresh look at the legend and reality of Sacagawea, the Lemhi Shoshone woman who traveled thousands of miles with the Lewis and Clark Expedition and was crucial to its success, then mythologized in a diminishing manner. “I wanted to explore her erasure,” Nagle told Center Stage’s Claudie Jean Fisher in an interview. “Here is a young girl who guided two of America’s greatest heroes through the Rocky Mountains and to the Pacific Coast and yet the true story of her survival has, for the most part, been silenced. She was a survivor of abuse and kidnapping, she was an incredibly strong Native girl. I think it’s time for America to deconstruct the mythology of Lewis and Clark and learn the truth about Sacajawea.” Nagle is an attorney and playwright and member of the Cherokee Nation, and Mnisose is her second premiere in Oregon in recent months: Her play Manahatta was a hit last season at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train. CoHo Productions and Beirut Wedding World Theatre Project bring a terrific-looking cast to this hard-boiled 2000 play by Stephen Adly Guirgis, whose The Motherfucker with the Hat and Pulitzer-winning Between Riverside and Crazy have been hits in recent seasons at Artists Rep. Jamie M. Rea directs Bobby Bermea, Duffy Epstein, Anthony Lam, Dana Millican, and Los Angeles actor Wasim No’Mani in Guirgis’s tale about a bicycle messenger who winds up in lockdown on Rikers Island after shooting his friend while trying to rescue him from a cult. Really. And that’s just the beginning.
A COUPLE OF GOOD BETS opening at the city’s leading children’s theaters:
Tenali: The Royal Trickster. Anita Menon, the Indian-dance choreographer who worked with Northwest Children’s Theatre & School on its hits Chitra: The Girl Prince and The Jungle Book, is back with company artistic director Sarah Jane Hardy to help create this tale about a clever trickster who saves a kingdom.
Jason and the Argonauts. Oregon Children’s Theatre goes on a theatrical Odyssey with just two wooden-sword-swinging actors (the talented duo of Heath Koerschgen and James Sharinghousen) telling the whole Greek-mythical tale, filtered through memories of special-effects master Ray Harryhausen’s pop-classic 1963 movie version. It’s a collaboration with the company Visible Fictions, in Glasgow, Scotland.
AND MORE SEASON ANNOUNCEMENTS:
CoHo Productions: The Northwest Portland company that builds its seasons from proposals by independent producers has announced a four-play 2019-20 season it’s calling “Recover & Rebuild,” with each play dealing in some way with that theme. It includes, in April and May 2020, the infamous To Be Announced: A choice has been made, but it’s pending licensing permission. Earlier in the season: Melinda Lopez’s Mala, about a child caring for her dying mother, co-produced by Brian Shnipper and A.R. Nicholas; Thai-American writer Prince Gomolvilas’s The Brothers Paranormal, co-produced with ther Asian American/Pacific Islander company Theatre Diaspora; and Dominic Finochiaro’s The Found Dog Ribbon Dance, co-produced by Connery MacRae, Tom Mounsey, and Cameron McFee.
Shaking the Tree. Samantha Van Der Merwe’s theatrically and visually adventurous company has announced a three-show season in its Inner Southeast warehouse space. It’ll open with a new version of Euripides’ Bakkhai, by poet and classicist Ann Carson, first produced in London in 2015. Van Der Merwe’s own A Banquet: in·stal·la·tion /ˌinstəˈlāSH(ə)n/, which she describes as “a theatrical exhibition,” follows, and the season concludes with The Antipodes, by Annie Baker (Circle Mirror Transformation; The Flick).