Extraordinary Jokes with Savianna Stanescuby Matthew Paul Olmos
We’ve all sat in the back of a cab, glimpsing the driver’s area. Squinting to get a better look at the name on the license, listening to the music playing in the background, wondering who they’re talking to on their mobile. Maybe we’ve even tried to cross the divide, after a late night in Manhattan, making intoxicated, possibly annoying, small talk. But how many times, especially in New York, do we look at people who are new to this country with a different set of eyes? And how many of them do we not take altogether seriously?
In the world of Saviana Stanescu’s new play Aliens With Extraordinary Skills, currently in production by Women’s Project at their Julia Miles Theater, we move to the driver’s area of the cab, and get a sadly different perspective altogether.
BORAT: I just gave a ride to this girl, blonde, very pretty, she was like flirting with me all the time, from the West Village to Times Square, like really flirting, asking about my favorite food and what kinda girls I like, so in the end I asked “would you eat out with me this weekend?” She started laughing at me…
Aliens With Extraordinary Skills is, in Saviana’s words, “A big circus show, a tragicomedy with ‘aliens’ in leading roles. A story about various “aliens,” not only illegal immigrants.” So while the play illuminates the lives of two Eastern European immigrants, it also concerns a Dominican-American woman who is trying to make it as an actress in New York, as well as a troubled American man recently divorced. Saviana sees all of them as having a commonality in trying not to lose sight of their dream and scraping by in hopes of finding it. In fact, she has subtitled the play, The Secret Charm of Losers.
…if you don’t have a green card you have problems with money, with getting a full-time job, a mortgage, an apartment etc etc. You feel like an outsider, like an outcast, like a clown who’s not allowed to show her problems to other people because people love you only when you smile… —Saviana Stanescu
I first was introduced to Saviana’s writing during a roundtable reading at the Lark Play Development Center of a collage-piece for the emerging theater company Personal Space Theatrics called Myth America. We’d both written monologues about young women who realized they were much further from their American dream than they ever thought possible. Saviana’s character was a woman from Moldova, now living in New York, who was so excited to be invited to a fancy party in Soho—complete with Manolo Blaniks, just like the ones she watched Carrie Bradshaw wear. And though the party did not turn out how she imagined, what I remember most was Saviana’s ability to scoop us into her characters’ fantasy of these American dreams and then show us their resilience as the often cold reality of America hits.
BORAT: Yeah, they talk with me, they smile, they make jokes, they answer the questions politely, but it’s nothing there, their heart is made of ice. Snow queens!
The characters in Saviana’s work show us how they see themselves succeeding in the U.S. How they imagine their happiness to be found if they can just get by here. In Aliens, a young woman, Nadia, from Moldova, is haunted by two INS agents:
NADIA: You must understand this! Don’t send me back. I want to be like you, I want to be happy! It’s written in your constitution. This country is about happiness. I know that!
INS 1 and INS 2 start laughing. Scornfully.
However the dreams of Saviana’s characters are not like so many of the dreams we hear too much about. They don’t involve bling, they don’t involve ridiculous fame, and for the most part they don’t involve riches or power beyond one’s own good. Instead they romanticize being able to see the sky from their apartment window, making people laugh no matter the situation, and not settling for a partner who they don’t actually love. Also from Aliens:
Lupita is at home. She wears a house dress, NOT a sexy outfit. She looks at herself in the mirror.
LUPITA: …OK, let’s see. Can I picture you married with a cab driver? Can I see him in the living room, on the sofa? Can I see you next to him? Right. I can see two couch potatoes watching TV. Cracking jokes. Making love.
And who’s paying the rent?
What affects us about Saviana’s characters is their self-awareness—that they are better than they are often viewed in this country. Two of the characters might make their money at a McDonald’s (dressed as food items) but they know how to laugh at themselves while they do it . Where else can you get:
The DIET-COKE tries to kiss the CHEESBURGER. It fails miserably. They laugh.
There is a beautiful irony to the fact that while Saviana is showing us immigrant characters who are sometimes seen as jokes by Americans, it is those immigrants who usually have the sense of humor. Her characters have learned to find the humor in their struggle and color in their everyday. Saviana chooses to paint her worlds, though perhaps stark under the strict lens of reality, with a theatrical paintbrush that gives us dictators as vampires, as seen in her Waxing West (2007 New York Innovative Theatre Award for Outstanding Play), immigrants as clowns, and INS agents as tour guides:
Incision in Nadia’s mind. The INSes spring out of the New York City Guide.
INS 1: But they lost the colony they called New Amsterdam.
INS 2: To the English in 1664.
NADIA: The settlement was re-christened New York.
INS 1: And the name stayed.
INS 2: And people started to come.
INS 1 Immigrants.
INS 2: Thousands of immigrants.
INS 1 and INS 2 become absorbed by their new roles as “tour guides.”
Of her portrayal of these sort of inner-hauntings in her work, Saviana explains, “I always like to dramatize/theatricalize the inner life of a character, I feel we’re missing a lot by not seeing that on stage but only as a subtext or in what the character says to other characters.” In Waxing West, Saviana explored the inner fears of a young woman, Daniela who is trying to find a life in America, but is too often accompanied by the ghosts of Nicolae Ceasescu, the former dictator of Romania, and his wife who appear as vampires threatening her with her own past.
As for Saviana’s past, she grew up in Romania, under the role of Ceausecu, where she would immerse herself in books and theater in order to deal with the oppression.
After the fall of communism in 1989, I enthusiastically started to work as a journalist in the “new democracy” Romania. As many of my fellow students in Bucharest, I had huge hopes and confidence in the new world emerging around us, as we HAD to be the ones bringing change. Hence a few more years of my life spent on dramatic living instead of dramatic writing.
Saviana arrived in New York on a Fulbright scholarship exactly one week before the attacks on September 11. Now an award-winning playwright in New York, Saviana is here legally with an O1 visa, which is an actual classification specific for “aliens with extraordinary skills.”
My life in [the] U.S.A. has been a continuous struggle to find my true place, value and identity. I sacrificed any attempts to a normal family life, to having a child etc. But see, if I put it like that, it sounds melodramatic and pathetic, so I need to spice that with a bit of humor.
It is this humor that runs through Saviana’s worlds, not even so much in the dialogue, but more so from the characters’ life-view. They know they are only a phone call away from deportation, oppression, homelessness, but they are not the people of morose melodrama. Instead they try to court while driving a taxi, they make balloon animals when money is short, and they rise above the ridicule of doing what they have to do to make rent.
I am always trying to laugh at life and at myself even when things are not so good. I am used to hardships and I learned that a sense of humor—even a gallows sense of humor—can help you survive, go on and move on. In this play I am forcing a happy-end on stage in the hope that some happy-beginnings will start happening for me.
It could be a tired song to say that the American theater needs the voices of other countries to help diversify our cultural scene. Too many times we get slices of life from other places, and the atrocities that go on while we go through our day to day. What’s refreshing about Saviana’s work is that she knows culture is not a one way street. It simply is not enough to sit down once and a while to a show or film from another country and take in how others live or realize what they’ve gone through. But how are we looking at them? And how are they looking at us? Do we appreciate their struggle on the silver screen, but mock it when we’re ordering food or throwing our trash on the floor when there is a perfectly good trash can several inches away?
Saviana shows us characters who are looking straight at us, at all our talents and faults. Who might still see America’s possibilities with sparkled glasses, but see its reality and citizens with a sharpness that we as a nation need to be more aware of.
In Aliens With Extraordinary Skills, we are put in the world of four characters who could be jokes or clichés on a television or movie screen. The sort of characters that some of us might take a look at and judge on the subway. And perhaps their greatest skill is that they are not blind to this, but rather look beyond it to the more important job of trying to make their lives something that they want and can smile at.
Aliens With Extraordinary Skills, by Saviana Stanescu, directed by Tea Alagic, runs September 22 - October 26, produced by Women’s Project at the Julia Miles Theater, 424 W. 55th Street. For tickets, call Telecharge at 212-239-6200 or visit www.womensproject.org.
ContributorMatthew Paul Olmos
MATTHEW PAUL OLMOS is the inaugural recipient of La MaMa ETC's Ellen Stewart Emerging Playwright Award, as selected by Sam Shepard; a Sundance Institute Time Warner Storytelling Fellow; two-time Mabou Mines/Suite Resident Artist; and an Artist in Residence at Brooklyn Arts Exchange. For more information, visit: www.matthewpaulolmos.com.