Aliens with Extraordinary Skills
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 29, 2008
Saviana Stanescu introduces us to two remarkable and resilient young women in her new play Aliens with Extraordinary Skills; in a year where the mainstream theatre season has been proclaimed by the so-called paper of record to be all about men, it's gratifying and valuable to find a smart and intriguing play like this one, not only created by females but also focused squarely on a pair of memorable heroines.
At the very center of the play is Nadia, a clown from Moldova who has recently emigrated to the United States. I mean "clown" literally: she is a woman whose particular talent is that she can make people laugh. When we meet her she's wearing a red nose and a silly wig and is performing a sort of puppet show with two balloon animals (a squirrel and a dog). She is, as she explains the State Department might characterize her, indeed an alien with extraordinary skills.
Unfortunately, she's also an illegal alien, and her dreams (waking as well as nighttime) are haunted by visits from a pair of INS officers who are ready to deport her. But Nadia—who, in the play's first scene, chooses for herself the more American name "Ginger"—is determined to stay in her newfound home country at pretty much any cost.
Nadia's professional partner is Borat, also an illegal immigrant (from Russia). They decide they will elude the INS by moving to New York, figuring that in a city so big it will easy to get lost in the crowd. They also decide—and I loved Stanescu's dramaturgy for this decision—to separate. Borat continues to stay in touch with Nadia (and with us) in his new life as a Manhattan cab driver (sleeping on the floor with half-a-dozen other illegals in some Albanian's basement). But Aliens mainly follows Nadia/Ginger's odyssey in NYC, looking for work, self-actualization, security, and—always at the back of her mind—a green card.
Nadia finds a place to live on Craigslist, which leads us to our second alien with extraordinary skills. Her name is Lupita, and she is a (legal) immigrant from the Dominican Republic. She's a magnificent creation: smart, ambitious, self-assured and self-sufficient, tough but vulnerably humane. She's an aspiring actress who currently supports herself as an exotic dancer. She becomes Nadia's advocate but never her best pal (a great realistic touch from the playwright). A pesky guy named Bob who wanted to buy the sofa that Nadia now sleeps on becomes a fixture in their lives.
The play tracks several eventful months in which all four of these people find their destinies increasingly intertwined. I love that the women here are the ones who make the life decisions; Nadia learns how to survive in New York and gains self-reliance and ownership over her tenuous existence. Through Lupita and Nadia we come to understand that extraordinary skills are precisely what's required to make the compromises that women must make to attain that kind of ownership. The specifics of each woman's set of choices are different, but the essentials are the same; the underlying sadness and seriousness of this play about a clown and a dancer keeps us focused sharply on the rocky terrain these courageous characters must negotiate.
Tea Alagic's production goes for a more antic and light-headed approach than I think the script deserves, which is somewhat unfortunate. The ending, in particular, which features a shower of balloons from the theatre ceiling, might be intended as ironic but undercuts the authentic ambivalence (even sorrow) that I think the author would like us to be contemplating.
That said, the production is very entertaining, quick-moving, and engaging. Both of the principal male performers—Kevin Isola as Bob and Seth Fisher as Borat—deliver fine performances, and Jessica Pimental is nothing short of spectacular as Lupita; she is clearly an actress to watch. Natalia Payne is less successful as Nadia, with an accent that drifts in and out and a characterization that doesn't really seem to plumb the depths of this enormously complicated and interesting woman. Gian Murray Gianino and Shirine Babb complete the company as the phantom INS officers.
In Aliens with Extraordinary Skills, Stanescu takes the audience into territory that will be uncharted for most of them: the immigrant experience is presented here with candor and without a shred of romanticism (save that tiny bit felt by Nadia for the place she's pinned all of her hopes on). Kudos to the Women's Project for sharing this surprising, smart, and unusual work with audiences.