“Resident Alien” kicks off the 2016-17 season with heart-wrenching truths

From left to right, Sasha (Ben Sears), Svetlana (Illiana Garcia), and Younger Nastya (Kelly McCarty). Photo by Randall Holcome.

From left to right, Sasha (Ben Sears), Svetlana (Illiana Garcia), and Younger Nastya (Kelly McCarty). Photo by Randall Holcombe.

If you wanted to leave your country in hopes of better opportunities for you and your family’s lives, what would you bring with you? What would you leave behind? In order to adapt to your foreign new world, what aspects of yourself would you throw out? Could you throw out? Which would you keep? And at what price?

These questions are answered in Katya Stanislavskaya’s new musical, “Resident Alien”, showcasing a fictional family story and their experiences with American assimilation in the early ‘90s. Fleeing the communist USSR, the Berdichevsky’s emigrate to the U.S. with the hopes of a better future in New Jersey.  The main characters consist of Sasha, Sveta, and their daughter Nastya. The husband, Alexander, is a literary scholar and professor proud of his heritage. The wife, Svetalana, is a professor and professional musician eager to adapt to the new world. Their daughter, Nastya, is a teenager who greatly misses the familiarity of their previous home life and whose culture shock coincides with her coming of age. When the airline seems to have lost their only crate containing their things and reminders of their world back in Russia, the Berdichevsky’s are forced to make their new lives and home from scratch.

“Resident Alien” kicked off the 2016-17 Western Carolina University Stage & Screen season and is bitingly hilarious, deeply moving, politically insightful, and downright heartbreaking. The musical ran from Thursday, Sept. 22, through Sunday, Sept. 25, in the Hoey Auditorium. “Resident Alien” won the Weston New Musical Award in 2015 and was later showcased as a staged reading for the Josefina Niggli New Works Reading Series at WCU, and now has finally been developed for the main stage.

“(On the title of the show) Resident alien is a term used for a legal non citizen. I find it very offensive. It purposefully makes the immigrant feel like an outsider, and gives American citizens an extra reason for mistrust and xenophobia,” stated Stanislavskaya. “I wanted the title to reflect the immediate perception that Americans have of the immigrant community; and the show itself to challenge that perception.”

It’s an impressive show about protecting and providing for your loved ones, the pursuit of happiness, and the harshness of Americanization. For example, the Berdichevsky’s try to get their names properly put on their government IDs during the song “The Renaming” without much success and are frustrated with this painfully slow process (including being treated like second class citizens by employees). They also come across a Rabbi that, because of their Jewish ethnicity, insists they must change their names to something more recognizable and pronounceable. America is the land of the free, right? After all the hard work of finally getting into the country, they’re “finally free” to be them…as long as it’s convenient. A line from the last song in the show perfectly displays this: “We are like statues, and this country is a chisel.”

The set and costumes of the show had over 100 costume pieces to go through but the costumes themselves were minimalist in practice. Everything that was on stage had a direct purpose and was not there for lush detail. A built in turntable shifted off both set pieces and actors in a circular motion around the stage that mainly left it bare to be filled by performances. A particularly inspired moment showed the coming of age of Nastya with her looking through a “mirror” of her older self, portrayed by another actress as they sang the same song and copied each other’s movements, leaving the younger Nastya behind. The turntable could represent the constant changing lives of the Berdichevskys as they transition through their new American life.

Kelly McCarty, a junior musical theater major, did a wonderful job of portraying the younger Nastya. Kylee Smith, senior musical theater major, played the role of older Nastya. Ben Sears, senior musical theater major, played the stoic Sasha, and Illiana Garcia as Svetlana with the most impressive performance of the night. Garcia really embodied a passionate, strong, future driven loving leading lady that effortlessly demanded your attention. There was not a dull moment from our leading cast.

“I have never been interested in theater, but the name and what was shown on the poster for “Resident Alien” really motivated me to see the show,” reflected Holly Hurding-Jones, junior. “I liked the accurate portrayal of the struggle to be Americanized through immigration and the effect on immigrating to America that can place on a family. Having to either conform – to look towards the future or be stuck in the past which all the leading members captured perfectly. I would definitely see it again.”

There were only minor issues with the show. A microphone cut off at one point in the middle of a song, another turned on at an inappropriate time, and there were points in the show multiple performers were singing at the same time where it was difficult to actually distinguish what either of them were saying due to the volume. Also, it was difficult to comprehend what age Nastya was at the beginning and when she aged up throughout the show.

Jayme McGhan directed “Resident Alien” and Stanislavskaya provided musical direction. Choreography was directed by WCU dance faculty Ashlee Warmund and the design of the show was by Andrew Mannion, Chris Collins, and Susan Brown-Strauss. Guest artists for this production were New York City orchestrators Matt Castle and Frank Galgano, who worked on and created the band arrangements.

Resident Alien is not stopping here at WCU. According to Stanislavskaya, she already has a workshop coming up in New York in February where she plans on incorporating any changes from this production experience. She is also pitching it to several regional theaters.

In this current season of political unrest and strife, “Resident Alien” provides something for us all to relate to: whether it’s the struggle of surviving our day to day lives, realizing that others might have it worse off than we do, and how important our families can be when they are all we have.