Thursday, March 7, 2019

179 (2018-2019): Review: RECENT ALIEN ABDUCTIONS (seen March 6, 2019)

“Close Encounters”

Recent Alien Abductions, a new play by Jorge Ignacio Cortiñas, offers the kind of offbeat, avant-garde theatre usually seen in intimate spaces by groups like The Play Company or the Soho Rep. In fact, The Play Company is responsible for its production and Walkerspace, the Soho Rep’s Tribeca venue, is where it’s playing. Judging by his play, Cortiñas (who also directed) is likely to see some sort of conspiracy in the arrangement.
Rafael Sardina. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
Walkerspace’s ever-changing black box has been divided longitudinally in two. On one side is a long acting area with a low false proscenium and a curtain that looks like silver foil. Facing it inches away, in a manner reminiscent of the basement space formerly used by the old Flea Theatre on White Street, are three closely packed rows of bleacher seats. 

As the audience waits for the play to begin, a nice-looking, slightly bearded man (Rafael Sardina) in a windbreaker watches us furtively as he stands down right, in a dark corner, directly before the stage. Hoping to have us turn off our phones, he begins to speak quietly to a nearby audience member, whose phone he requests so he can wrap it in aluminum foil. He repeats this with someone at the other side of the house. He then talks quietly, with a conspiratorial edge, about the 25th episode of the hit TV series, “The X-Files.”

What follows, and ends only a half hour later, is Act One of a three-act, intermissionless, hour and a half play. It’s a complex monologue about this episode, the only one in the long-running series set in Puerto Rico. The man, being from Puerto Rico and having the same name, Álvaro, as a principal character in the show, is obsessed with it. Álvaro, he points out, is never applied to Latinos in TV shows, who are always called, Juan, José, or, when “they’re trying really hard,” maybe Jorge. “It’s not that Álvaro is a rare name but it’s not the kind of name you hear on television shows made in the United States.”

“The X-Files” is known for taking FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, he the believer, she the skeptic, down myriad rabbit holes concerning paranormal events and involving conspiracies, one inside the other, like Chinese boxes. Álvaro discusses his “X-File” episode in granular detail, offering multiple possibilities for what’s behind each twist in the plot, even extending his theories to the production background.

In Episode 25, says Álvaro, Mulder has come to Puerto Rico to uncover what he thinks is “an intergalactic alien conspiracy.” A fast online search reveals that Episode 25 is “Little Green Men,” Episode 1 of Season Two. It does take Mulder to Puerto Rico. As in Álvaro’s recounting, the island’s huge Arecibo Observatory (which he doesn’t name), once used by NASA to seek contact with extraterrestrial life, plays a big role.

The plot specifics differ, however, from what Álvaro describes, including the name of the “dark-haired teenage boy in sweaty work clothes” who Mulder encounters and who thinks the aliens are coming for him; it’s not Álvaro but Jorge, the playwright’s name. Cortiñas seems to be involved in his own conspiracy as the monologue, which also introduces a suspect “Older Brother,” takes on the hue of a subtextual memoir. Something is seriously disturbing the guy.

For Act Two, the foil curtain is ripped away to reveal a wide, low-walled, gray-rugged, white room (designed by Adam Rigg and very brightly lit by Amith Chandrashaker), with a doorway to the interior at right, and a gated one to the outside at left. Used for each of the act’s several scenes, it’s bare except for a small, second-hand sofa, and a downstage right TV, its glaring screen turned upstage. Above the wall can be seen evidence of the local greenery.
Vivia Font, Daniel Duque-Estrada. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
We learn that Act One was a New York work of performance art presented by Álvaro before he killed himself. His lesbian friend, Patria (Ronete Levenson), has flown to his family’s home in Puerto Rico to get their signed permission to publish a book of Álvaro’s monologues. His wheelchair-bound mother, Olga (Mia Katigbak), suffers from dementia and incontinence. 

She’s cared for by Álvaro’s sister-in-law, Ana (Vivia Font), suspicious of Patria, and Álvaro’s brother, Néstor (Daniel Duque-Estrada), with some assistance from a neighbor, Beba (Yetta Gottesman), the only one friendly toward Patria. Néstor, resentful, jealous, dog-fight loving, and volatile, had an explosive relationship to the dog-fight hating Álvaro that’s likened to Clorox and ammonia. He stands in Patria’s way, forcing her to try a more devious way to get what she came for.
Mia Katigbak, Daniel Duque-Estrada. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
The play suddenly has veered into one about a dysfunctional Puerto Rican family, in which, among other things, everyone speaks in standard American accents (despite Álvaro’s frequent reference to Latin American ones). There are passing references to the island’s politics, a metal dog cage is assembled, an old lady’s behind is cleaned and her diaper changed, there’s a bloody rape attempt, and a disturbing family secret is disclosed.
Mia Katigbak. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
Despite his play’s realism (including the onstage diaper-changing), Cortiñas offers stylized devices, like having the actors, coolly robot-like, take their places at scene beginnings with one of them nodding when it’s time to start. At scene endings, they drop their characters and walk off, expressionless, with Olga even pushing her wheelchair. On the other hand, the climactic scene of violence, staged by Thomas Schall, even with its bloodletting, is seriously unconvincing at such close range and might have benefited from a more theatricalized approach. Moreover, the deliberate, lifeless pace pervading much of the action is a serious downer.
Company of Recent Alien Abductions. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
For the brief Act Three, the rugs are rolled up, revealing a reflective, metallic floor, and the family reappears, this time as alien versions of themselves, wearing Bizarro-like, angular masks. (This is a change from the script, which calls for the actors to simply be larger than those we’ve already met.) Not to be taken literally, it’s described by Álvaro as another of his performance pieces, revealing his memories of tension in his home between his younger self and his family as seen through the prism of a lost “X-Files” episode. In it, he views his mother and brother —whose lines describe their behavior in the third person—as aliens living in an only slightly distorted version of the reality he remembers. The point is well taken.

Well produced, with an ominous sound score and music by Mikaal Sulaiman and appropriate costumes by Fabian Fidel Aguiler, Recent Alien Abductions enjoys excellent, if not exceptional, performances. The play is both accessible and obscure; its “X-Files” framing scenes are intriguing yet distracting; its depiction of family strife concerning a prodigal son is affecting but unenlightening; and its story of someone seeking permission to publish a book acceptable but not compelling. Indeed, as to the latter, it’s hard to agree to so much sturm and drang being expended on such a publication because, based on what we’re shown, it smells of anything but a bestseller. 

By the way, maybe there is actually an alien conspiracy going on here. Please look at the receipt for the meal I ate just before the show and note the server’s name.

64 Walker St., NYC
Through March 24