We are all connected. There are forces at play in the universe that are not seen, but felt. Within the realm of spiritual consciousness, we find Mystery School, a play by Paul Selig currently on view at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, D.C. put on by The Edge of the Universe Players 2 theatre company. Seeking an understanding of the mystical and the divine, the one-woman play embarks on a journey through five different female characters at different stages of their lives.
First, we find a woman who is heavily judgmental and very religious. Her views are stern and her beliefs laid out first in a funny conversational tone, later gathering strength as the play moves forward to include one of the more powerful deliveries in the entire performance. The next woman is Francie, a gentler soul who is not only compassionate but is also ready to believe in the good in everyone; a gentler take on spirituality. Later we meet Amelia, who during a personal crisis starts on a journey of deep questioning of all beliefs. The questioning itself makes this a more commanding performance. The bare-bones stage seems to disappear and we are easily transported to an AA meeting to witness the unraveling of Amelia. Next up, we meet another woman, who is wheelchair-bound. This is the more cryptic of the five performances, which makes it a treat. Using several memories and some sound effects, the past along with the illusion of an imagined world are interwoven for a wonderful ride. Finally, the fifth and last character is Dr. Edie, who like Francie, has a kinder and more benevolent view of the world.
In Mystery School, actress Nora Achrati delivers a fine and brave performance, with the entire show resting on her shoulders. The one-woman show is not only challenging as a thought-provoking piece; it is also a test of endurance for any actor. Achrati goes through the five different characters described above – although all from a female perspective – who are varied, diverse and come from different backgrounds. The set and costumes are minimal, and so is the lighting. The entire focus of the play is on the women and how they have come to acquire their deeply held beliefs, for better or worse.
While it may sound like the serious subject matter will make this a very heavy play; there is a lot of humor imbued into every character. The Melton Rehearsal Hall of the Woolly Mammoth Theatre erupted in laughter more than once during opening night. The mood went from serious and pensive to light and fun in a few moments. Credit goes to Selig and Achrati for finding that fine balance between comedy and a serious tone. Director Aly B. Ettman also deserves credit for being able to get such powerful performances from Achrati, who with sparse costumes, takes us to meet very different personas.
In all, this is a different kind of play – one that could easily be overlooked in an already crowded space – but that can spark deep thoughts in its audience. There are several messages interwoven here and the sparse setting invites imagination and surely conversation afterwards.
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission.
Mystery School plays through November 19, 2017, at the Melton Rehearsal Hall of the Woolly Mammoth Theatre – 641 D Street NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, buy them at the door, or purchase them online.