After opening its fourth season on Sept. 20, the Coal Mine Theatre’s latest production is already receiving rave reviews.
The 80-seat theatre in Toronto is currently running the Canadian premiere of Annie Baker’s The Aliens, one of the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright’s four Vermont Plays. Each one is set in the same small town in the northeastern state and The Aliens centres on three men: two misfits, K.J. and Jasper, who hang out in the alleyway behind a café, and 17-year-old café employee Evan Shelmerdine, who enters their world.
Multiple Dora Award-winner Mitchell Cushman is directing the production, which stars William Greenblatt as K.J., Noah Reid as Jasper and Maxwell Haynes as Evan.
Baker wrote The Aliens back in 2010, but besides subtle markers that ground this interpretation of the script in the present – such as an image of Senator Bernie Sanders that’s included in the set – Cushman and Greenblatt say the play’s themes are wholly relevant today, despite major shifts south of the border.
“We talked about Vermont in some ways as being a very liberal, left-leaning place, but it’s also the whitest state in America,” says Cushman. According to American census data, Vermont is nearly 95 per cent white.
“Those kinds of themes about lack of diversity, living in a community where everyone is homogeneous, that’s very much in the background of the play and I think really touches a lot of nerves in today’s discourse,” he continues. The character of Evan, for instance, is Jewish, but isn’t so forthcoming with that aspect of his identity.
The themes of joblessness and aimlessness, especially in regard to how they affect young men and their relationships with women, politics and each other, resonate for Greenblatt. “A lot of those issues seem to be interconnected and I think that’s a really important thing that a lot of people are talking about now,” he says.
Greenblatt, who studied at the National Theatre School in Montreal, is known for his work on Family Channel’s Life with Derek and Radio Free Roscoe.
Cushman is the founding director of Outside the March, a company known for producing site-specific theatrical works. For The Alien, he’s transforming the storefront Coal Mine theatre by thrusting the audience into the action. “We’re all squatting in this alleyway with the characters,” he says.
Sound designer Sam Sholdice placed a microphone on the street outside the theatre and is live broadcasting everything it picks up, in lieu of having a musical soundtrack for the show. Cushman explains that it fits with the play’s hyper-natural style.
He describes The Aliens, as well as Baker’s entire body of work, as hyper natural. “This really tries to be a photorealistic depiction of life and conversation,” he says. “Going to see one of Annie Baker’s plays is getting to hang out and spend time with the characters in a specific moment in time.”
The Aliens runs until Oct.8 at the Coal Mine Theatre in Toronto. Tickets