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Faith and flying saucers at HotCity Theater

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 27, 2011 - With a U.S. congressional committee recently looking into Muslim American activity, and overall religious intolerance increasing, it's no wonder people of different faiths sometimes see each other as near-aliens. And for those who question what they can't see or touch, belief in a higher being is tantamount to believing in UFOs.

Examining serious and timely issues around spirituality, St. Louis-born-and-raised playwright Lauren Dusek Albonico mixes extraterrestrial themes with down-to-earth comedy in "Intelligent Life." The play makes its world debut in HotCity Theater's April 29-May 14 production.

But don't look for an overt discussion of religion. It's all in the subtext, woven into the humor.

"It's the kind of play I like to go see: a high-energy comedy," Albonico said. "The serious moments are juxtaposed against the comic moments."

Take Me To Your Leader

Is the character of Aethen just a regular boy or is he from outer space? It depends on what you believe. After he's somehow accidentally kidnapped by a rag-tag group calling itself the Utah Alien Chasers, everyone begins to question his or her convictions.

"Like the Scooby Doo gang" is how Albonico's dad described the bunch after reading the play. But instead of searching for the stolen treasure, the Alien Chasers are looking for answers. Director Annamaria Pileggi calls the play a "unique and clever explanation of faith."

"She's taken a hotbed issue -- if you ask anybody what their faith means to them and what their spiritual beliefs are, it can be a slippery slope -- and put it in the context of these down-and-out UFO enthusiasts," Pileggi said.

Sock Puppets And Other Shenanigans

The alien/religious theme took young veteran actor Parker Donovan, 15, by surprise. After all, his audition for the role of Aethen involved a scene in which a recovering alcoholic who is kicked out of his home engages Aethen with personified footwear.

"I thought it was about some kid playing with sock puppets," Donovan said. "When I found out the plot was about aliens, I thought that was really cool."

Before you can say, "Danger, Will Robinson," Donovan knew what his favorite line would be: a single utterance, "butthead."

"This whole time in the scene leading up to it I've been crying and screaming, and then when they finally get me to talk I say, 'butthead,' which is the most unpredictable thing."

After first conceiving the play as an adventure story, as Albonico wrote the script she began to view the Alien Chasers' quest as a metaphor for resolving religious uncertainty. After being raised Catholic and attending Villa Duchesne High School, the playwright later went through her own spiritual skirmish while working toward her undergraduate degree at Washington University.

"I had a couple of years of serious doubt, but I ended up being pretty Catholic," Albonico said.

And what about the Alien Chasers?

"There are several different journeys that unfold in the course of the play," Pillegi said. "Some have their faith bolstered; some have their faith restored; some have their faith completely destroyed."

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