The Paul Selig play that Edge of the Universe Players 2 is now performing in the Woolly Mammoth rehearsal space could, with justice, be called Five Interesting Women, Some of Whom Have Issues with God or, in this specific production, Nora Achrati Shows Us Some Features from her Theatrical Toolbox. But Mystery School seems a little misleading. There is not much mystery here, and we are not in school.
Nor is there a through line. That needn’t be fatal, and it isn’t here: Selig has five characters, plump with quirks, tell their stories. Some are funny and some are wise and some are terrifying, like the narrative of the woman who opens the play, a hate-ridden harridan who trumpets her Christianity and believes the rest of humanity will be condemned to hell, basically for not being her, when the Rapture comes (which she hopes is soon). As she tells us about the sinners she knows and their inevitable fates, she begins to shine with joy; and as she describes the apocalypse she appears to be in rapture herself.
As the audience sits stunned she quietly goes to a center stage dressing table, doffs her jacket, changes jewelry — and now she is Francie, host of New York City’s worst cable talk show, in which she spouts new age ephemera and takes calls from her only fan, a heavy breather named Lester. (She explains karma by revealing that in her past life she was a brilliant nun who had taken a vow of silence, and “now I have a mind like Minnie Mouse and talk incessantly.”)
closes November 19, 2017
Details and tickets
Achrati takes on each new role with a shape-shifter’s ease and lack of fuss. She becomes a struggling alcoholic who has lost her lover and boozing best friend to sobriety; a great archeologist’s bereaved wife whose dilemma — it may involve her maid — is just a few centimeters outside of our understanding; and a renegade psychologist giving what appears to be a Ted talk. It is a bravura performance, and it reminds me that Achrati is one of the actors we ought to see more often, and in bigger roles.
Achrati uses two dialects, southern for the venomous Church Lady and for the archeologist’s wife; New York for Francie and Dr. Edie, who closes the show. Her portrayal of the alcoholic is without regional shading, and is also the most compelling; we believe in the pain each character shows, but we feel real sympathy for this character, and a sense of foreboding as well.
Each one of the stories is a form of direct address. The character is explaining herself to us, and Achrati makes it real, gazing into the eyes of audience member after audience member. This wouldn’t work, obviously, in Harman Hall but in these intimate confines it is affecting, and Achrati and director Aly B. Ettman have made the right choice.
If you come looking for some overarching narrative or conclusive wisdom you will be disappointed. What you will get instead is five unusual and very different women, all of them Nora Achrati, who will tell you stories you won’t hear elsewhere. If that’s enough for you — as it was for me — you’ll like the show.
Mystery School by Paul Selig, directed by Aly B. Ettman, who also did the costume design . Featuring Nor Achrati . Set design: Dan Remmers . Lighting design: Peter Caress . Sound design: Reid May . Clare Shaffer is the stage manager . Produced by The Edge of the Universe Players 2 . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.