Even as you enter the theater, the world already seems tilted on its axis. The Play Company’s New York premiere of Jorge Ignacio Cortiñas’s Recent Alien Abductions is being staged at Walkerspace, the home of Soho Rep. It’s a theater I’ve been to many times, and seen in multiple configurations–but never quite like this. A curtain of tinfoil covers a long, thin stage. That stage sits uncomfortably close to an oddly small seating area, squashed against the side wall like an afterthought. A prop television set, flickering scarily, directly blocks the path to your seats. Combined with eerie pre-show sound cues, all of this makes for an unsettling start.
Into this vaguely threatening space walks Álvaro (an astonishing Rafael Sardina), who turns out to be a gracious host. Sure, he begins by wrapping two audience members’ iPhones in tinfoil–but not without their permission. Once satisfied he will not be interrupted (or recorded?), Álvaro begins to talk to us about The X-Files. Specifically, one episode of The X-Files which, he explains, was mysteriously altered after its first broadcast as part of an elaborate cover-up. In the first broadcast, Fox Mulder is investigating extraterrestrials in Puerto Rico when he meets a young child named Álvaro. They form a quick bond–one that is tragically cut short when Álvaro is abducted by aliens.
The tonal balance of this opening monologue is extraordinary. Álvaro should be easy to laugh at: obviously his conspiracy is imagined, and much of his “evidence” is easily explained. Yet while the monologue is funny, something about Sardina’s delivery keeps us from laughing at Álvaro. If his obsession with this episode clearly points to unresolved issues in his own psyche, our host seems totally aware of this; if anything, he is pointing us towards that explanation. So what is really going on here?
Things will get grimmer before they get clearer. The play, which Cortiñas has also directed with great precision, next jumps to Puerto Rico four years later. Álvaro’s friend Patria is visiting his family, seeking permission to publish Álvaro’s writings. His short-tempered brother Nestor is opposed, while the women of the house (Nestor’s patient wife, his ailing mother, and a sweet neighbor) are kinder to Patria, if still deferential to Nestor. As the decision looms over them, we flash through a series of moments in this family’s life.
“Flash through” is the best way I can think to describe it. This section of Cortiñas’s work is firmly grounded in reality, and mostly plays as such: the set is greyer, the morals are murkier, and the people seem adrift. Yet the short scenes are also broken up by disquieting transitions where the actors move like aliens. Though Álvaro is no longer present, it starts to feel like his hand is guiding us through these snippets of his family’s pain. Each scene sheds a little light on that mysterious opening, while also explaining why Álvaro might seek meaning, and escape, in imaginings upon imaginings.
Some of these scenes with Álvaro’s family are, admittedly, tough to sit through. But it always feels like Cortiñas is weaving a tapestry, that each moment is there for a reason. The devastating final section of Abductions confirms this. As the play turns in on itself, the roots of Álvaro’s trauma come into focus. So, too, does the danger of excavating one’s own trauma through art.
Is Cortiñas commenting on himself here? Possibly–the play certainly feels deeply personal. The piece also suggests, though, that diving fully into your own trauma leads only to more pain. That is, unless we should take Álvaro’s confrontation with his past, which concludes the play, as itself a fantasy. Did he really open himself up so nakedly, as Cortiñas is now (perhaps) doing for us? Or is this just more theater?
I consulted Hulu a couple of days after seeing Abductions. The twenty-fifth episode of The X-Files, the second season opener entitled “Little Green Men,” must indeed have been altered prior to its first airing. It does not feature a young Puerto Rican child called Álvaro, but rather an older man named Jorge. This man does not particularly form a bond with Mulder, as they do not share a language. And Jorge is not abducted by aliens–he dies, abruptly, of fright. The version of this story Álvaro describes to us sounds, honestly, far better than the episode I watched. But like the freeing conclusion of Cortiñas’s play, it remains only an imagining of what could have been.