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Merrimack Rep eases back into live theater with ‘Wild Horses’

Merrimack Repertory Theatre artistic director Courtney Sale.
Merrimack Repertory Theatre artistic director Courtney Sale.Kevin Harkins

“Wild Horses” allows audiences to “put a toe back in to a return to live theater,” says director Courtney Sale. Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s one-woman memory play will be staged Sept. 17-Oct. 3 at several indoor and outdoor locations in Lowell and North Andover for modest-size audiences of 70 to 120 people. It will also be filmed so audiences who aren’t quite ready to be in a theater can enjoy the play from their homes (video available Oct. 1-17).

“Wild Horses” follows the story of a mother of teenagers who is jolted back into long-suppressed memories of her own wild teen years. With ‘70s hits like “Horse With No Name,” “Smoke on the Water,” and “Dancing in the Moonlight” as a backdrop, the play takes the audience back to a time when hard lessons come daily and discovering your limits requires testing everyone else’s too.

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Sale, Merrimack Rep’s artistic director, had the opportunity to helm the world premiere of Allison Gregory’s play and wanted to take advantage of the solo storytelling with music.

“We are framing the play as if we are at an open mic night,” she says.

“Wild Horses” unfolds as the unnamed narrator, played by Leenya Rideout, steps up to the microphone to sing “just one song” but ends up sharing the saga of a summer from her youth, with the music as the soundtrack of her memories. Rideout incorporates the voices of the storyteller, her two best friends, and several other characters.

“No one has listened to her in a long time, and it’s definitely her story,” says Sale. “Leenya, who stepped in two days before rehearsal started when another actress had to drop out, is incredibly talented, and has played on Broadway in musical theater, done puppetry in ‘War Horse,’ and is comfortable with movement.”

Movement in this case also means from one performance location to another, from park to community center to school. “By framing this as an open mic opportunity, we just lean into the idea that we are in this space tonight,” says Sale.

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Although Sale arrived as the theater’s artistic director at the start of the pandemic in March 2020, she says she has been overwhelmed by the way the community has embraced her.

“We are working closely with Mosaic Lowell [part of the Lowell Community Foundation], which is developing a new cultural plan for the city,” she says. “We have been working closely with Lowell High School, but now have been invited into so many additional spaces, we are reaching people who are familiar with us in new ways, as well as entirely new audiences.”

MRT is partnering with Mosaic Lowell for several Sunday matinees of “Wild Horses” in public parks.

“These are still ticketed, seated performances,” says Sale, “but I’m excited to see who wanders by and stays to check out the story and the music.”

A ‘Macbeth’ for the senses

As a psychologist with a background in theater, Wendy Lippe’s Psych Drama Company produces plays that “go for the emotional jugular,” she says. “We need these stories that speak to joy and pain.”

Finding those connections often means the company’s in-person performances blur the boundaries between actors and audience, making the experience more intimate and the audience more complicit in the action onstage. Rather than allow the pandemic to frustrate her efforts, Lippe says it offered new opportunities.

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“Lots has been written about how bombarded we are by overstimulation,” she says, “and how it is killing our imagination. We decided we can tell great stories by focusing on the language with an audio play, heightening the experience by relying on the imagination to conjure the images.”

While many local theaters have turned to an audio format, Lippe says her company has stayed true to its immersive experience by creating a “3-D audio surround-sound experience.” This month, Psych Drama is presenting two audio dramas, “Macbeth” (Sept. 10-24) and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (Sept. 11-25).

Psych Drama’s 90-minute “Macbeth” is produced in association with the Audiovisual Center Dubrovnik and features the music of Zarko Dragojevic and sound design of Zachary D. McConnell. Far from simply performing the play to a microphone, Dragojevic’s original music, and the use of what Lippe calls “whispers,” add to the dramatic tension.

As Lippe was considering how to explore the lushness of a performance with no visual stimulation, she happened on the website ArtLifting, which featured the vivid, abstract paintings of Nick Morse.

“I looked at this abstract painting and when I flipped it, I saw Macbeth, holding his sword with the Witches and the fires of hell behind him,” says Lippe. “Normally, I might worry about offending the artist by flipping it, but Nick’s dad, [former Globe pop music critic] Steve Morse, said Nick doesn’t mind which way you want to hang his art, as long as you love it.”

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While Lippe connected with one of Nick Morse’s paintings specifically for “Macbeth,” she says she was drawn to many of his works on the ArtLifting website.

“We decided the opportunity to see many of his paintings provided the perfect ‘intermission’ in the play,” Lippe says. “It also allows more people to see Nick’s work and learn more about ArtLifting, a platform for artists “impacted by housing insecurity and disabilities.” Nick Morse, who is on the autism spectrum and nonverbal, communicates through painting.

“Nick’s paintings are so full of color and emotion, they allow you to get lost in other worlds,” says Lippe. “We hope our audio adaptation of ‘Macbeth’ allows audiences to do that, too.”

For ticket information, go to www.thepsychdramacompany.com. To see Nick’s artwork, go to www.artlifting.com/collections/nick-morse.

ART to depart Oberon

After 12 years of producing a wide range of theatrical and musical productions at Oberon, its second stage in Cambridge, American Repertory Theater will not renew its lease at the 2 Arrow St. venue when it ends on Dec. 31.

“We still hope to reopen Oberon this fall as long as we can bring audiences together safely,” said Rebecca Curtiss, public relations director at the ART, but no bookings have been confirmed yet. Curtiss says the ART is looking at other spaces around the Harvard campus, in Cambridge and Boston, where it can provide programming. “We are hopeful we can do that this spring,” she said.

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The decision was made as the ART prepares for the eventual opening of its new home on Harvard’s Allston campus, although no firm date has been set yet for the proposed center for research and performance.

“We are looking forward to uniting all our programming under one roof,” said Curtiss.

WILD HORSES

Presented by Merrimack Repertory Theatre. At various venues in Lowell and North Andover, Sept. 17-Oct. 3. Ticket information, dates, and locations at www.mrt.org/show/wildhorses.