“The Weird” does a lot of wonderful things at once. It’s funny, disturbing and politically conscious. It manages tight choreography among a busy ensemble of 10 and spotlight moments for most of them. Moreover, it’s a collaboration by four accomplished writers that preserves the fluidity and raw directness of devised work that’s born from improvisational rehearsal sessions.
That’s because it’s a little bit of both. With her eye on a show hovering around the intersection of witchcraft and American politics, Off the Grid artistic director Alexis Scheer convened nine other actors (all but one in the cast are women), director Steven Bogart and a quartet of noted playwrights — Kirsten Greenidge ("Milk Like Sugar"), John Kuntz ("The Salt House"), Lila Rose Kaplan ("The Light Princess"), Obehi Janice ("FUFU & OREOS") — for workshops in early summer. Folks worked out ideas in the room, and the playwrights were sent away with assignments to write short pieces building on themes and ideas that popped out of the devising process.
As assembled in the final form — in an intimate space at Boston Center for the Arts through Sept. 16 -- the various contributions were further integrated. Scheer accomplished a coup by booking these four artists as house playwrights. So how did it work out?
Scenes from Greenidge’s contribution (“Gather”) are spread out through the program, with the other three plays interspersed within. Some group-movement work created by Bogart and his ensemble bookends everything.
What results from this brew is a stream-of-consciousness effect. Greenidge’s piece does not benefit from being broken up, but throughout the one-act performance there is a sense of suites of scenes running together fluidly and coalescing around central conceits, with no clear demarcation between sections. The result is occasionally disorienting (not always in a thoughtful way — sometimes it’s just confusing) but you do get the sense of a theme.
From the Salem witchcraft trials to a feminist podcast, the show concerns itself with covens. Not merely as in groups of witches practicing, but gatherings of women who assert their power to be themselves in a space separate from the male-dominated power structure. In the end, the fractured format may actually weaken the strictly thematic elements of “The Weird” — by creating the sense of confluence, the creative team short-changes our opportunity to consider each piece in turn.
But moment to moment, it's a vibrant and satisfying theatrical experience. There's lots of good work here to admire.
Each member of the ensemble merits praise. They are Kara Arena, Taylor Beidler, Amanda Collins, Ida Esmaeili, Rebecca Lehrhoff, Khloe Alice Lin, Rosie McInnes, Eliott Purcell, Alexis Scheer and Ciera-Sadé Wade. The cast is young (only one is noted as a member of Actor’s Equity) and with different levels of experience, but each has plainly invested a lot of creative impulse into jointly realizing this piece. Rachel Padula-Shufelt’s costumes and Lee Schuna’s often-spooky sound design also go far to create the world of “The Weird.”
Kuntz goes over the top with “The Ear of Our Lord,” a sexed-up spin on the witchcraft crisis in Salem Village. Each actor goes as big as possible with nearly every bit of text, amping things up into an exaggerated tone that goes beyond that of soap opera. There are any number of unexpected line readings that land with humorously brute force. As a lascivious Goody Goode, Kara Arena writhes with hyperactive lust; her delivery of the name “Cotton Mather” seems like an erotic shudder from the depths of Goody Goode’s being.
A wordless pantomime of the Salem ladies doing “women’s work” is erotically suggestive, and Eliott Purcell gets a speech, as Mather, that leans into the sadomasochistic undertones of hell-and-brimstone preaching. He makes much use of ears of corn as phallic props. With a song-and-dance section and a deliciously realized witches’ feast (with Mather as the main course), “The Ear of our Lord” is a bravura marriage of the fluid teamwork of Bogart and his ensemble with Kuntz’s off-kilter comic sensibility.
Obehi Janice’s “Era Era” is perhaps on the other end of the spectrum; set contemporarily, it too is very funny but finds humor in a friendly sending-up of certain habits of the progressive left. Scheer and Arena are Patricia and Victoria, hosts of a feminist podcast going out on a live stream. Patricia is a self-described Latina Jewess; Victoria gamely asserts that she’s only “half white,” because her Irish ancestors are complemented with Italian ones. Racism and gentrification in Greater Boston, and an endorsement of Tito Jackson for mayor of Boston, are among the topics that come up.
I marveled at the two actors’ chemistry. Portions of their interplay are just hilariously real. (Arena scores again with her exasperated line reading of “we are the worst,” in reference to white women.) Things take a darker turn when an unnamed caller, played with detail and compassion by Amanda Collins, may or may not be going on about a plan to mail her “newly healthy” menstrual blood to Donald Trump. A strange peach-cutting ceremony follows.
I can’t tell you exactly what that peach is all about, but it makes for a gorgeous onstage moment. Like much of “The Weird,” this could be a careful, literary symbol or an accident of inspiration. There is much joy here in possibly mistaking one for the other.
Off the Grid's "The Weird" continues at the Boston Center for the Arts through Sept. 16.