photographs by Barry Wisdom
Everyone wants to be appreciated for who they; for their personalities, for their accomplishments, for their talents – for their “extraordinary skills.”
On the surface, “Aliens With Extraordinary Skills” – Saviana Stanescu’s seriocomic play now on stage at the B Street Theatre – is a story of the new generation of immigrants who are coming to America.
Some, like Nadia (Stephanie Altholz) and Borat (John Lamb) have landed with less-than-legal credentials and are on the run from the INS.
Lupita (Rinabeth Apostol), a wannabe actress from the Dominican Republic who pays the rent by working as an exotic dancer and renting out her living room, is more pragmatic. She has followed the rules and holds a Green Card.
Also in the mix is Bob (Brian Rife), a recently divorced former musician, who connects with Lupita via Craigslist in order to buy her used couch (and provide a handy love interest).
Stanescu, herself a Romanian immigrant, focuses on what she knows.
In her center ring are Nadia and Borat, professional clowns from Eastern Europe who have given their trust (and most of their money) to an unscrupulous agency responsible for arranging work visas on behalf of “aliens with extraordinary skills.”
But the duo soon discovers the circus they were told had hired them does not exist, and with no employer to sponsor them, the INS has politely told them to drop their dreams, pick up their luggage, and exit coast left.
The chronically upbeat Nadia, who has recently been orphaned, and can’t bear the thought of returning to the “unhappiest country in the world” where she can’t realize her dreams of making people laugh, follows Borat to New York City.
More than a land of endless McDonald’s PlayPlaces where happy-go-lucky, balloon animal-loving kids and their parents frolic, it’s also the home of her “Sex and the City” idols. Nadia may want to bring laughter to the Big Apple’s populace, but she would also love to have a Mr. Big bring her a perfectly brewed cup of coffee to her Manhattan bedroom.
Once in New York (well represented by Catherine Frye’s scenic design), Borat finds refuge in the basement of a fellow immigrant, for whom he participates in an illegal cab-driving operation, and Nadia plants herself on Lupita’s couch, suggesting they could be like “sisters.” Enter Bob, six-pack in hand, who is slow to let go of his claim on Lupita’s couch and slower still to let go of the notion that he’s God’s gift to women.
From the first few scenes, one is inclined to feel smug in the feeling that the storyline is an express train to predictability.
But what might seem to be another made-for-TV plot featuring a bumpy romance sprinkled with mild laughs and even milder conflict, actually develops into a charming, heartfelt play that’s more amusing, moving and surprising than typical Hallmark Channel fare.
Credit director Buck Busfield’s well-balanced cast, and Altholz and Lamb in particular, for extending both the highs and lows of Stanescu’s script.
Altholz, who, like Lamb, is a graduate of the B Street’s apprenticeship program, and a current company member, is both sweetly funny and sad as the fresh-faced, rainbow sock-wearing naïf whose innocent desire to make others laugh is shaken by the harsh brutality of New York’s flip side.
In handling Nadia’s accent, Altholz’s expert vocal modulations – which are showcased during her squirrel-and-dog balloon animal playlets – simply make one laugh. Call them guilty pleasures, but they’re just goofy bits that serve to leaven more serious moments and they’re welcome.
Borat, too, transitions from what looks to be a static “clown,” into a more fully developed character with a clearer set of priorities. The leather jacket-wearing, cell phone-snapping Borat is revealed to be a much more sensitive and family-oriented than his initial wild-and-crazy, vodka-swilling, Green Card-hungry persona might suggest, making the show’s longest (and most satisfying) journey.
During the course of Lamb’s time on stage, one can almost see the Lupita-chasing Borat’s heart grow three sizes larger. This is an impressive achievement considering the organ Borat spends most of the play working to triple in size.
As Lupita, Apostol offers a more serious performance from start to finish, providing a no-nonsense center for the dreamers who enter her orbit. She, too, has her dreams, and in one the play’s poignant moments, psychs herself up for another “performance” at the club where she dances by repeating the mantra that it’s simply a role she’s playing. Lupita also is changed by her association with Nadia and Borat, realizing that what she needs may not have been what she wanted.
In the larger sense, we see that the word “aliens” in the title is more than a reference to citizenship, but to a sense of belonging.
Not only are Nadia, Borat and Lupita “aliens” in the legal sense, but are alienated from their dreams, emotions and – most importantly – from real, human connections.
Beer-guzzling Bob, though an American by birth, is also alone amidst the bright lights of the big city. Despite his bravado and easy-going (though sometimes obnoxious) personality, Bob’s over-eager attempts to jump back into the saddle are merely avenues to escape loneliness.
Kudos to Rife for being able to transform Bob from irritating has-been musician to hero – a Dudley Do-Right who is actually as sweet and loyal as the wide-eyed Nadia.
B Street acting interns Katie Rose Krueger and Stephen Rowland, who play the INS agents in pursuit of Nadia and Borat, are a Greek chorus of sorts, popping up to provide a bit of narrative and wardrobe-changing help here and there.
They provide the perfect support for leads Altholz, Lamb, Rife and Apostol, who easily move the audience from giggles to gasps. One might even want to change the title from “Aliens With Extraordinary Skills” to “Actors With Extraordinary Skills.”
JUST THE FACTS
WHAT: The B Street Theatre’s production of Saviana Stanescu’s "Aliens With Extraordinary Skills"
WHEN: Jan. 15-Feb. 26, with performances at 6:30 p.m. Tuesdays; 2 and 6:30 p.m. Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 5 and 9 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays
WHERE: B Street Theatre Mainstage, 2727 B St., Sacramento
CAST: Stephanie Altholz (Nadia); John Lamb (Borat); Rinabeth Apostol (Lupita); Bob (Brian Rife); Katie Rose Krueger (INS agent 1); Stephen Rowland (INS agent 2)
DIRECTOR: Buck Busfield
HOW MUCH: $18-$30; $5 student rush
INFORMATION: (916) 443-5300, www.bstreettheatre.org