By Donna Herman
Don’t get the wrong idea from the title of Rough Magic’s offering “How to Keep an Alien” at Origin’s 1st Irish Festival. There’s absolutely nothing to do with space in the piece and the only strange creatures in it are from Oz – otherwise known as Australia – and Ireland. Presented at the Irish Arts Center from September 18th through October 1st, this is an autobiographical, not-quite-solo show written and performed by Sonya Kelly about falling in love with her partner Kate from Queensland. Oh yes, and then having to prove it to the Irish Department of Immigration.
This is the U.S. premiere of “How to Keep an Alien” which won the 2014 Best Production Award at the Tiger Dublin Fringe, and subsequently toured to Brisbane under Gina Moxley’s direction. Moxley is also at the helm this time around, and the collaboration between her and Kelly is clearly a successful one. Moxley also directed and developed Kelly’s debut autobiographical solo show “The Wheelchair on My Face: a look back at a myopic childhood,” which was performed in the US as “I Can See Clearly Now” where it was a NY Times Critics’ Pick. Kelly clearly has a knack for mining the deep veins of personal experience to come up with theater and comedy gold.
Kelly starts by bounding on stage with a huge notebook in her arms and she introduces herself as our performer for the evening and Paul Curley as her Stage Manager. She proceeds to tell him that she’s made some changes to the script and he’s to do everything in yellow as she plops the enormous tome on the desk in the middle of the stage and opens it and hands him a copy. “Do you want acting?” he asks her as he goes to his small desk in the back corner of the stage. She sits on the edge of her desk and faces the audience and considers “Eh, a bit? But like, not more than me.” In a break with the traditional format, Kelly calls this less of a solo show and more of a “one and three-quarter person” show. But make no mistake, this is Sonya Kelly’s life and Sonya Kelly’s show from this moment through the last laugh, and we’re lucky she’s sharing it with us.
She then launches into the tale of rehearsing a Russian play in an Irish castle, absolutely miserably prancing around in furs in the heat of summer to seem more Russian while trying to learn dance steps she is absolutely horrible at. The only thing getting her through the interminable sessions in which she is being ridiculed by the choreographer, and the entire creative team, is her new friendship with the stage manager, Kate. Kate is a resident alien from Australia who has been given four weeks by the Irish government to pack up and go back down under.
Kelly tells us the tale with complete unselfconsciousness, throwing herself completely both physically and emotionally into each new situation, acting each part and person perfectly. She is Irish and speaks with an Irish accent but when she describes Kate coming up to her at the first rehearsal she switches between an Irish accent and a spot on Australian accent seamlessly. And between the confident Kate and her own introverted demeanor truthfully: “‘Hi I’m Kate from Queensland. How are you going?’ And I say, ‘I’m Sonya. I can’t dance and I’m going to die. How are you going?’ And she says, ‘I’m getting deported. That’s how I’m going.’”
The charm and intimacy of the piece lies in Kelly’s willingness to reach inside and look at and lay bare for all to see, the thoughts of isolation, incredulity, despair, fear, disbelief, love, passion, and well….FEELINGS…that we all have but think makes us weird and unknowable and unlovable. She’s utterly truthful and the audience cannot wait to see what she will say and do next. And we are totally in her corner. As a writer, she uses the tools of comedy and self deprecation so we understand her vulnerability and root for her but never pity her.
The attraction between Sonya and Kate is instant from that first moment of mutual self confession: “To cheer her up I suggest we end it all together. So she puts her finger in a plug socket and pretends to fry her brains and I fall out a window: flirting, Irish style. Now every day for fun pretend to die a little. Three weeks in and we’ve done drowning, poison, pesticide, electrocution, immolation . . .suffocation, guillotine, overdose, peaceful pill, and suicide by cop.”
Sonya then continues to take us on the wonderful, thrilling roller coaster ride of trying to figure out a relationship with a partner who is literally half a world away and with whom you must document your relationship on paper with receipts. Hardly a fairy tale, Kelly has to confront her fears and ambivalences, figure out what she wants from her life and whether or not she has the guts to go for it. And she keeps us laughing and rooting for her the entire time. A love story for the ages. A writer and a performer to watch. Don’t miss it.
“How to Keep an Alien” by Sonya Kelly, directed by Gina Moxley
WITH: Sonya Kelly (Performer & Writer), Paul Curley (Performer & Stage Manager)
Lighting design by Sarah Jane Shields; sound design by Carl Kennedy; Maureen White, Dramaturg; a production of Rough Magic, performed under the auspices of Origin’s 1st Irish Festival at the Irish Arts Center, 553 West 61st Street, NYC. Tickets: www.irishartscenter.org or call 866-811-4111.