theater

Star-crossed ‘O.P.C.’ back on message

From left: “O.P.C.” director Pesha Rudnick, playwright Eve Ensler, and actors Olivia Thirlby and Kate Mulligan.
Katherine Taylor FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE
From left: “O.P.C.” director Pesha Rudnick, playwright Eve Ensler, and actors Olivia Thirlby and Kate Mulligan.

It’s the first day of rehearsal — or Meet and Greet — for Eve Ensler’s new play, “O.P.C,” which is making its world premiere at the American Repertory Theater. Staff, cast, and crew are standing in a circle in a basement rehearsal hall, introducing themselves and sharing a personal factoid to help director Pesha Rudnick remember their names. One fellow just got his septum pierced. One is a narcoleptic, and another is a beekeeper. A sports fanatic says she just won her week in fantasy football. And one woman — gasp — used to be a proud member of the National Rifle Association.

And there is talk of insurrection. Ensler says her new play is about “changing the paradigm.’’ Rudnick speaks of urgency: “It is a fast play,” she says. “It moves quickly. That is what the revolution looks like.’’ Rudnick invites everyone present to feel free to attend rehearsals. “If we are having a meltdown moment,’’ she says, the stage manager will say, “Can you give us five?’’

Revolution? A paradigm shift? Meltdowns? This is a new work by Ensler, after all, who is just as well known for her play “The Vagina Monologues” as she is for her activism to end violence against women. With “O.P.C.,” she takes on nothing short of world destruction. She ticks off a list of hot-button topics: global warming, inadequate wages, poverty, government surveillance, inequality. She gets at these issues through the character of Romi, a young woman who squats in an abandoned building and practices “freeganism,” which is a movement to reject consumerism and live off discarded food and reclaimed garbage. Romi clashes with her mother, an ambitious feminist named Smith who is running for the US Senate. Romi wants to rebuild the world, and her mother wants to rule it.

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And, oh, it’s a comedy.

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“Sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll,” says Ensler. “And fruit skin dresses.”

At the Meet and Greet, Ensler sums up her thoughts about contemporary society. “I go from being extremely destroyed to extremely excited,” she says.

The production process itself has had its share of ups and downs. This month, Academy Award-winning actress Melissa Leo withdrew from the role of Smith because of what ART described as “artistic differences.” (Attempts to reach Leo or her representatives were unsuccessful.) Kate Mulligan of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival flew in to take over, with just a week to learn the role before previews began Friday. Earlier, Stephen Collins had dropped out of the cast, citing personal reasons, and a few weeks later it was reported that he was being investigated for allegations of child sexual abuse, an issue central to Ensler’s activism and art. Then his replacement withdrew at the last minute before his casting was even announced; Michael T. Weiss stepped in four days after rehearsals began on Oct. 28.

Life happens, and the show must go on. Ensler started writing the play seven years ago, when she became obsessed with issues such as global warming. Back then most people she knew shrugged it off, but now, she says, they are deeply concerned.

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While she was researching the play, she tagged along on what is known as a “dumpster dive” with a group of freegans on New York’s Lower East Side. “They’re really concerned about waste, but they were kind of ordinary people,” she says.

Ensler didn’t keep or eat anything she found, but Olivia Thirlby, who plays Romi, went dumpster diving with the same group and became a believer. “It exhilarated me beyond what is practical and logical,’’ she says. “It made me feel free to know that I could plunge my bare hands into so-called garbage and come up with beautiful limes and flowers and boxes of basil.” She says she will absolutely do it again, and the experience was enlightening.

“It makes your jaw drop when you see how much perfectly fresh, clean food was being thrown away,” she says while opening a Synergy drink she bought after a yoga class. She realizes the irony and apologetically admits that she is doing the best she can.

Rudnick also went on a dive in Boulder, Colo., where she is the artistic director of Local Theater Company. One trash bin was full of produce, the other with chocolate. “We found truffles, all wrapped in cellophane,’’ Rudnick says. “I ate the chocolate, but I’ve got to be honest, I didn’t eat the fruit.”

The director, who has two young children, has changed her family’s habits to cut down on packaging that cannot be recycled. Sorry, kids, no more juice boxes or squeeze yogurt. And the creative team is striving to practice what the play preaches. More than 95 percent of the set and costumes were made from recycled goods. There will be a freegan gallery in the lobby of the theater, displaying eco-friendly furniture and “trashion” — clothes made from items found in the garbage. There will not be a paper program for audience members, but the creators say they have devised a way to communicate the show’s credits. (It’s a secret — and it’s unlikely that ART will continue using found objects for the sets and costumes in future productions.) The actors were given personalized mugs to discourage the use of disposable plastic water bottles and Styrofoam cups.

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The cast has had lively discussions about consumption. “They’re uber-conscious now,” Ensler says. And they are plagued with guilt. “We are all trying to just buy less, which is easy to do when you are riled up and excited,” Rudnick says. “But the minute we get tired and run down, we want to rely on things that make us feel better, whether it is clothing or coffee.”

And consumerism isn’t the only issue that has led to heated discussions. The cast spent an entire day talking about sex, which plays prominently in the plot. Romi is diagnosed with an invented disease called Obsessive Political Correctness (or O.P.C.), and the only way to ease the symptoms is to make love. It’s clear that Romi’s family is relaxed about sexuality, as nobody in the clan blinks an eye when they walk in on Romi and her lover lying naked in bed. “When you talk about sex with Eve Ensler at the table, you are direct,” Rudnick says. “It ended up being a very evocative conversation.”

American Repertory Theater " O.P.C." Rehearsal photo. Pictured: L-R: Pesha Rudnick, Kate Mulligan, Olivia Thirlby Photo credit: Gretjen Helene Photography -- 28OPC
Gretjen Helene Photography
Rehearsing in Cambridge: director Pesha Rudnick (left) with Kate Mulligan and Olivia Thirlby, who play mother and daughter in “O.P.C.”

The bedroom chatter was all about revealing character, a process that has been intense for Thirlby, who is best known for her work in films such as “Juno” and “Judge Dredd.” Her character goes through a journey of self-discovery and experiences emotional highs and lows. “I am calling on the depths within myself to sustain the arc of this character,’’ Thirlby says. She says she hasn’t been sleeping well since rehearsal started and relies on yoga and holistic supplements to make it through the night.

“The message of the play is so relevant and timely, and I believe in it deeply,’’ she says. “That is what I hope will sustain me in this near-impossible task.”

The role she plays, in fact, inspired the play. “Romi began talking to me, and then I started to think, ‘What if there was this mother?’ ” Ensler says. Smith is driven by ambition, and she raised her two daughters on progressive values. “Romi is a product of Smith,’’ Ensler says. “So what happens when your daughter drinks the Kool-Aid? It is a good conflict, and I think people will relate to it.”

While the play addresses political questions, Rudnick prefers to think of it as a play about family, not a polemical piece. “In some ways, this is a departure for Eve, because her way into the issue is through a familiar family structure,” Rudnick says.

Ensler has been rewriting throughout rehearsals and will continue to tweak up until opening night on Wednesday.

Given all the backstage drama, the process has been a race to get the play up and running with a full cast. Ensler says she approaches the issues raised in the play with a sort of desperate optimism, recalling her remark at the Meet and Greet about being simultaneously destroyed and excited. “I am a [Samuel] Beckett optimist: ‘I can’t go on. I will go on,’ ’’ she says. “I like the second part. Otherwise, what is the alternative?”

More coverage:

- Melissa Leo leaves cast of ‘O.P.C.’

- ‘7th Heaven’ actor reportedly under investigation for child abuse

Patti Hartigan can be reached at pattihartigan@gmail.com.