by Mike Hoban
Written by Kirsten Greenidge, Obehi Janice, Lila Rose Kaplan, and John Kuntz. Directed by Steven Bogart. Presented by Off The Grid Theatre Company at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts through September 16
The Off The Grid Theatre Company continues to push the boundaries of conventional theater, following up last year’s brilliant and disturbing ‘Blasted’ with a decidedly tamer but thoroughly engaging original piece, The Weird, co-written by Boston playwrights Kirsten Greenidge, Obehi Janice, Lila Rose Kaplan, and John Kuntz. According to artistic director Alexis Scheer, the play was conceived with the four playwrights holed up in a room with 10 actors, a director (Steven Bogart) and dramaturg for a week in June, and were then given the summer to come up with their roughly 20 minute segments, which were then knit together to produce the play. The segments, which span from the time of the Salem witch trials to more contemporary settings, revolve around the themes of magic, religion, politics, and the empowerment of women.
The Weird is presented on a large pentagram on the floor of the Virginia Wimberly Theatre in the Calderwood Pavillion, with the circle serving as the edge of the performance space. The set and props are relatively spare, with the occasional table or chair wheeled on and off as necessary. While the four diverse pieces could each stand on their own, they are so thematically intertwined that the transitions between the segments flow fairly seamlessly. Three of the stories run mostly in succession, with Greenidge’s “Gather” interspersed throughout the work, opening with three young girls attempting to burn a bay leaf to perform some sort of healing magic learned from the ailing mother of one of the girls – with little success. As the piece unfolds throughout the evening, however, we see how the righteous passion of the young woman crystallizes into the kind of tangible power that can triumph over a real evil.
The second piece, Kuntz’s dark but insanely funny “Ear of Our Lord”, finds a Cotton Mather-esque figure mansplaining to a group of young women of Salem (all of whom have ‘Goody’ as a given first name) why so many of their sisters had to be put to death – before succumbing to his own inner demons. The highlight of the piece is a bizarre ritual involving a favorite summer vegetable whose erotic potential was somehow overlooked by the Pilgrims.
Kaplan’s ‘Letters From the Coven’ may be the play’s most well-developed and thoughtful piece. Set in a girl’s boarding school (complete with plaid uniforms), it first appears to be about the lone rebel of the group fighting to not conform to group-think (by consuming apples to give her clarity), but it soon evolves into something more akin to a hopeful metaphor for the possibilities of The Resistance. Janice’s ‘Era Era’ is a very funny character sketch involving two somewhat misguided city-dwelling millennial women – one Jewish/Latina, and another who considers her Italian heritage to be her “non-white” side – who give their version of empowerment to a live female podcast audience (with the help of their hapless young male engineer).
The writing is consistently good (and given the pedigree of the local playwrights, not surprising), and although there were moments where I felt a bit lost, it was the overall impressions rather than the narrative that made The Weird so impactful. The play is also remarkable in that it may be one of the few times that you’ll see so many women in meaningful roles on one stage, as the cast of 10 is comprised of nine women and one man. This is a work well worth seeing, particularly if you’re looking for something out of the ordinary – the hallmark of Off The Grid productions. For more info, go to: www.offthegridtheatre.com