THE BASICS: GROUNDED, a one woman play by George Brant, directed by Kristen Tripp Kelley, starring Aleks Malejs as a grounded U.S. Air Force fighter pilot, opened January 6 and runs through January 22, Thursdays & Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 3:30 & 7:30, Sundays at 2:00 at the Kavinoky Theatre, 320 Porter Avenue (on the D’Youville College campus). Runtime 80 minutes without intermission. Adult themes, strong language, but appropriate for a mature high schooler. Coffee, cheese and fruit, cookies, wine available before the performance. (829-7668). www.kavinokytheatre.com
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: A swaggering, top gun, F-16 fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force (no name, just “The Pilot”) who only feels truly alive in her flight suit up in the “blue” becomes pregnant after an intense affair with a man named Eric, and so faces a pilot’s worst nightmare, being grounded. Now married with an infant daughter, Samantha, she returns to work only to be told that the F-16 era (the conflict in Iraq) is over and that the new top guns all fly drones. Reassigned to what she derisively calls “the Chairforce,” piloting drones in Afghanistan from Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, she and her new family move to Las Vegas. Whereas F-16 pilots launched their missiles and were long gone when the damage occurred, drone pilots are encouraged to “linger” and verify their success, which means watching body parts go flying. Assigned to track and kill a key enemy figure, referred to only as “Number Two,” she begins to call him “The Prophet” and in her 12-hour days staring at a computer screen she begins to see no difference between the sands of Afghanistan and the sands of the Nevada desert. Her marriage starts to fall apart (she muses on what a different story it would have been if Ulysses in Homer’s THE ODYSSEY had come home to Penelope every night), she becomes more paranoid about security cameras in the shopping mall (“eyes in the sky”), and when she sees that “The Prophet” drives the same car as she does and has a very young daughter too, things reach a crisis.
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: At last, an unequivocal five star (five Buffalo) play with every theatrical element in place to deliver a riveting 80 minutes of live theater. If you’re wondering “do I want to leave my cozy home in sub-freezing weather to drive on icy roads downtown to the Kavinoky?” the answer is YES! YES, YOU DO.
First off, Aleks Malejs [say “alex malaise”] is a Buffalo treasure. Having spent years out of town (mostly in NYC) perfecting her craft, she returned in 2013 and was most recently seen as “The Princess” in Irish Classical’s SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH and before that as “Anna” in the Kavinoky’s THE CITY OF CONVERSATION. Over her 80 minutes on-stage, alone, with only a flight suit and a simple chair as a prop, she is completely convincing swilling beer with her fellow macho pilots, having a three-day sex romp with her pickup date, to being a mom playing with “My Little Ponies,” to a wife with insomnia, to that person on a long nighttime drive across the desert of the soul. Question: about 60 minutes into the play, on stage the whole time, how did she develop those haunted bags under her eyes? A makeup trick? I’m going with acting chops. Damn, she’s good.
This play is so intense that if it were one night only that would be understandable. How Aleks Malaise will be able to do this 14 times is a wonder. I recall an old coach who said that the secret to success was to “show up, suit up, and play hurt.” And I understand that Aleks, suffering on opening night from some variation of the laryngitis going around, took a steroid shot right in the neck so that she could literally “show up, flight-suit up, and (do the) play hurt.” As an individual [PH1] she may not like flying, but as a professional actor she has “the right stuff” that makes her a “top gun” of her craft. As I said: Damn, she’s good.
This play, just like an F-16, would not get off the ground without a top-notch ground crew.
But everyone else in the production is too. Reading her bio in the program, Malejs thanks her “design team” which before the play I thought was just the obligatory nod. But truly this play, just like an F-16, would not get off the ground without a top-notch ground crew. Every piece was critical. Where to begin? The direction by Kristen Tripp Kelley kept things moving, all over the stage, very physical, very sexy, very emotional, very nurturing, very scary. How that one prop, the chair, can be your lover, the seat from which you rain death, your three-year-old daughter whom you hug during those special mornings before work and how you can be flirty one minute and homicidal the next were all directorial questions that were well worked out.
David Kane is credited with “Soundscape Orchestrations” and, as an adjunct professor of Electronic Music at NCCC, he really knows how to deliver the goods. We all accept movie music as part of a complete cinema experience, but how often do we get that in a play? Here, all those effects, from the creepy-psychological-thriller music to the SFX of the jet engines to the pop music (The Pilot loves AC/DC) and especially the mix tape husband Eric gives The Pilot for her commutes, work seamlessly along with all of the other elements.
The set is as sterile as the killing of enemy combatants thousands of miles away.
Which brings us to Brian Milbrand credited as “Video Designer.” Part of the genius of this play is that we get video images rear projected on three screens covering the back of the stage. Okay. We’ve seen video before (virtual sets) as it has become standard in musicals, but here it’s not to save money or even to enhance the very effective set by David King. It’s organic and integral because our central character is a drone pilot, staring at a video screen 12 hours a day. How many hours it took Milbrand to assemble all of the footage I don’t want to know. Obviously it was a labor of love.
The set is as sterile as the killing of enemy combatants thousands of miles away, angular, white, and multi-leveled effectively filling the stage and giving the director plenty of marks to keep the production from being static.
Watching GROUNDED is a very emotional experience and will affect you, get you thinking, and certainly get you talking. In other words, all of those things that live theater is supposed to do but so often doesn’t. If you taught an English class in high school or college, I could see thinking, talking, and then writing about GROUNDED as a semester long project. It touches upon so many aspects of contemporary society, you’d never run out of topics. So go, for yourself, but if you could bring some younger people along, that would be a very smart thing to do.
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!