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Jorge Ignacio Cortiñas' new experimental play Recent Alien Abductions is an engaging enigma
Few television shows have haunted the collective imagination as much as The X-Files. The sci-fi series -- which ran on Fox for 11 seasons and spawned two feature films -- centered on the paranormal adventures of FBI agents Mulder and Scully, played by David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson. Even those who've never seen The X-Files probably know its "The Truth Is Out There" motto, while die-hard fans can recite entire episodes by heart.
Álvaro (Rafael Sardina), the main character in Jorge Ignacio Cortiñas' Recent Alien Abductions, is one such X-phile, and he's convinced that his all-time favorite episode has been mysteriously altered since its original broadcast. Problem is he has no proof other than his memories of watching it on TV as a kid growing up in Puerto Rico. "Some works of art become deeply embedded within us," says Cortiñas, who also directed the show. "Sometimes I experience something in a film or a play or a piece of music and it becomes so integral that it feels like something I lived instead of something I witnessed."
Recent Alien Abductions premiered in 2017 at the Humana Festival of New American Plays at the Actors Theater of Louisville, and PlayCo is currently producing its New York debut at Walkerspace. In the play, Cortiñas cleverly uses pop-culture iconography to explore the nature of trauma. Much like watching The X-Files, the show leaves audiences with more questions than answers.
It begins with Álvaro, a performer and writer residing in NYC, delivering an intense monologue deconstructing the episode he's so sure has been altered. Then it switches to his childhood home in the Puerto Rican municipality of Bayamón, where his family still lives. They resent him for having moved -- his bully of an older brother, Néstor (Daniel Duque-Estrada), is particularly incensed. "Néstor was left behind and thinks of himself as a victim," Duque-Estrada explains. "I know very well what that feels like."
As the 90-minute show unfolds, the complexity of the estranged family dynamic deepens and a dark history of abuse is unearthed against a very specific cultural backdrop. In the writing and design are details that reflect the particulars of Latinx life. For Duque-Estrada, who like the playwright is of Cuban heritage, Recent Alien Abductions gave him an opportunity to bring "what's in my bones" to his work. "There's a cultural shorthand -- Jorge felt more like my cousin than my director," the actor says. "If I'd been watching this play as a teenager, I'd have gone: 'That's me!'"
Cortiñas, who studied playwriting with the legendary María Irene Fornés and earned an MFA from Brown University, seems to be exploring a range of complicated themes in the play: the multiple definitions of alien, the trickery of memory, cultural erasure, pop-cultural obsession and the legacy of trauma. But he refuses to spell anything out. "I wish I could take more credit and give you an answer that hinged on an idea," he says when asked about the play's unique structure.
So dwell on the mysteries if you must, but don't expect closure. Like The X-Files, Recent Alien Abductions disturbs, lingers and challenges you to draw your own conclusions. "I absolutely want people to engage," Cortiñas says, "and for the work to live inside of them."
Top image: Rafael Sardina in Recent Alien Abductions. Photos by Julieta Cervantes.