John Greiner-Ferris’s “Plank” takes the simplest theatrical elements — a plank, some actors, a creative backdrop, and the audience’s imagination — and combines them into a sea of magical realism to explore questions of priorities and purpose.
“I think in terms of movement before dialogue,” says the playwright, whose Alley Cat Theater is producing the world premiere of “Plank” Aug. 26-Sept. 16 at the Calderwood Pavilion. “The journey these characters take has a strong dramatic arc. It’s just not rooted in conventional realism.”
“Plank” follows Potpee, a woman who survives a shipwreck with nothing but a scrap of wood to cling to. After an unspecified time drifting in the sea, Potpee is rescued, but later discovers that her experience sets her apart from a society in which people place a higher priority on the number of “friends” they have than on actual friendships.
Director Megan Schy Gleeson says “Plank” isn’t interested in delivering simple answers to big questions. “What I love is that this play offers pockets of possibility with a lot of humor,” she says. “It opens up places for thought and discussion, letting the audience take that wherever they like.”
“As an actor,” says Poornima Kirby, who plays Potpee, “you want to make things elegant, but the truth is often a little jagged.”
Greiner-Ferris says he created Alley Cat to have the opportunity to produce plays that don’t fit traditional theater expectations. “Boston theater companies are very conservative,” he says. “But there are lots of playwrights who have so much more to say.”
Greiner-Ferris cut his teeth with Boston Public Works, a company created to produce new work by its playwright members, which disbanded last year after the final playwright’s production closed. “We all learned so much from that experience,” he says. “The question is, where do we go from here?”
Alley Cat received a $15,000 grant from the Boston Foundation’s new LiveArtBoston program, which made the production possible. “I hope this is the beginning of a trend to provide more support for experimental new work,” Greiner-Ferris says.
Four playwrights get really weird
Off the Grid Theatre Company has staged an intimate production of “Equus” in a storefront community space, and then followed up with a powerful production of the unflinchingly brutal “Blasted,” which earned the company two Elliot Norton Awards. This year, founder and artistic director Alexis Scheer was looking for new material.
“Like a lot of people after the election in November, I thought, how can I respond to this?” says Scheer. “I reached out to some of my favorite local playwrights with a general idea about politics, magic, and witchcraft, and then, with the help of director Steven Bogart and a 10-actor ensemble, we devised a piece.”
“The Weird,” which runs Sept. 1-16 at the Calderwood Pavilion, features the work of four local playwrights: Kirsten Greenidge, Obehi Janice, Lila Rose Kaplan, and John Kuntz.
“I jumped at the chance because Alexis was giving me permission to be weird,” says Kuntz. “She said to push the boundaries as far as I wanted.”
Kuntz said he thought about witches in terms of the Puritans in Salem in the 1600s.
“I was thinking about Cotton Mather,” he says. “And when I read that Cotton Mather was involved in creating hybrid strains of corn, I realized there had to be a corn orgy.”
Scheer said letting the playwrights do what they do best was exactly what she wanted. Each of the plays is about 20 minutes long, with Greenidge’s serving as the through line.
“Kirsten’s play looks at a daughter trying to take care of her terminally ill mother after the Affordable Care Act is repealed,” says Scheer. “Her increasingly desperate efforts weave through the other plays.”
Kaplan’s story focuses on young women in a school of witchcraft writing letters home to their mothers; Janice’s is a millennial podcast in which the two hosts blend political humor with advice on self-care; while Kuntz’s is a modern mash-up of Mather and “Young Goodman Brown.”
“We’ve really been exploring the shape of the piece with lots of input from the actors,” says Scheer. “Working with Steve Bogart has been great for devising this piece. While we’re feeling the pressure of time, and the opening just around the corner, he likes to say, ‘We have no time, so let’s slow down.’ It’s a great way to allow for experimentation, while also paying attention to structure.”
Huntington sets up shop in Everett
The Huntington Theatre Company opened its new production center this month at 46 Garden St. in Everett, where it will house its prop, paint, and scenic design shops. The building includes 25,000 square feet of production space, 18,000 square feet of storage space, and 4,000 square feet of office space. The theater company shut down its production facility on Huntington Avenue after the property was sold by Boston University to a developer. A new tower on the site will abut the former BU Theatre, which the Huntington will overhaul. With its expanded production facility, artistic director Peter DuBois said the Huntington will now be able to serve more theater companies and arts organizations in the area.
Presented by Alley Cat Theater. At the Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, Aug. 26-Sept. 16. Tickets $25, 617-933-8600, www.bostontheatrescene.com
Terry Byrne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.