Off the Grid’s ‘The Weird’ is a bumpy but fun ride

A scene from John Kuntz’s “The Ear of our Lord” segment of “The Weird.” Photo credit: Nile Hawver/Nile Scott Shots.

BOSTON – The theater troupe Off The Grid takes pride in its non-traditional form of making theater – hence both its name and its mission statement, which Artistic Director Alexis Scheer described as “rebelling against the mainstream.”

The troupe has followed up its controversial but highly-praised production of “Blasted” that won two Norton Awards with “The Weird,” now being performed in the Calderwood Pavilion of the Boston Center for the Arts through Sept. 18.

Scheer, who wears many hats including actress, enlisted director Steven Bogart, nine other actors – all but one of them women – and the talents of four local playwrights:Kirsten Greenidge, John Kuntz, Lila Rose Kaplan, and Obehi Janice.

They gathered for workshops a few months ago, batted some ideas around, and were sent away with a homework assignment: to write short plays based on ideas that sprang from those workshops

The resulting 90 minutes is most definitely what Scheer described as ”rebelling against the mainstream,” and arriving at “the intersection of politics and witchcraft,” and as might be expected in a piece with four distinct and different visions, it makes for a bumpy theatrical ride.

It is very often difficult for theater-goers to connect the dots, but that doesn’t really matter because connecting the dots is not what the troupe is after with a devised theatrical piece such as this.

When presenting any new work – and especially a work that is the product of multiple viewpoints and ideas – it’s vital the actors are buying into both the material and the director’s vision, and that’s the case here with the most experienced and perhaps well-known members of the cast, Amanda Collins,and Eliott Purcell, joined by Rebecca Lehrhoff, Kara Arena, Taylor Beidler, Ida Esmaeili, Khloe Alice Lin, Rosie McInnes, Eliott Purcell, Alexis Scheer, and Ciera-Sadé Wade.

The central theme has to do with covens – not necessarily of witches, but of empowered women in other situations.

Greenidge’s piece – “Gatherings” – is the piece that opens, closes and intersperses the three other pieces, beginning with three young girls attempting to burn a bay leaf, some sort of healing ritual learned from one of their mothers.

But that ritual – and power contained within – will express itself again and again during the evening.

The two segments I found most intriguing were John Kuntz’s “The Ear of Our Lord,” a stylized and very suggestive and sexy re-imagining of the events surrounding the Salem Witch Trials, as Cotton Mather (Purcell) finds himself at the mercy of women – Lehroff, Arena, Collins and McInnes –who are interested in excising Satan, but not from themselves, and Kuntz with his trademark dark humor exploring the possibilities of using an important .tool of sustenance for something else other than food.

Era Era” by Obehi Janice is the funniest of the pieces. It features Scheer and Arena as Patricia and Victoria, a raucous duo of feminist podcasters live-streaming a show based on “wellness and resistance,” one s a “Latina Jewess powerhouse” and the other “half-white,” (due to her Italian heritage) and Purcell has a funny turn as a hapless engineer.

The podcasters receive a very strange phone call from a woman played by Amanda Collins/, a most disturbing call that will send a chill and cast a pall over the event. 

“Letters From the Coven” is a series of letters home from young women at a coven in which Kaplan explores what it means to be a young woman today in the present political climate, a piece she accurately described in an interview as “a funny and chilling look at what it means to be a young woman today. 

The four distinct and differing takes make it hard to connect the dots, but then again connecting the dots is not all that important in a devised theatrical piece such as this.

The Weird” is staged on Mary Sader’s large pentagram at the center of the intimate space of the Calderwood Pavilion, with the edges of the circle marking the edge of the performance space. Rachel Padula-Shufelt’s spot-on costumes lend a strong air of authenticity and Lee Schuna’s sound design helps set the proper atmosphere.

At a recent performance of “The Weird,” the majority of theatergoers were young and enthusiastic, the envy of theatrical organizations worried about the graying of their audiences.

The Weird” may not be for theater-goers who want every last blank filled in for them. Off the Grid sure doesn’t want to do that.

The Off The Grid Theatre Company production of “The Weird” Written by Kirsten Greenidge, Obehi Janice, Lila Rose Kaplan, and John Kuntz Directed by Steven Bogart At the Calderwood Pavilion of the Boston Center for the Arts through Sept. 18. offthegridtheatre.com.

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