Sarah Flood in Salem Mass
The Flea’s time-traveling new play isn’t compelling enough to make up for a strange staging and confusing plot.
Sarah Flood in Salem Mass, now playing at The Flea Theater, is quintessential off-off-Broadway theater. The dance-, song-, and poetry-infused story about two teens from the future who travel to the Massachusetts of the past is nothing short of trippy. When the characters themselves take some psychedelic mushrooms, their trip seems tame compared to the one the audience is on.
Before the play even kicks off Sarah Flood begins drawing its audience into the play's dream/nightmare-like world with a constantly moving, choreographed onstage scene and an enigmatic dialogue spoken by the future girls to various audience members. This sets a prescient for breaking the fourth wall that continues throughout the show. When the plot begins in earnest, a narrator/village laborer introduces the audience to the residents of this poor little town just outside of Salem where the chief activities are working, reading The Book, and being frightened. The audience is then introduced to the two future time travelers who have come to right some unspecified wrong. As their lives intertwine with those of the villagers, two different worlds come together and change (or do not change) everyone's lives.
Often, the confusing plotline in Sarah Flood in Salem Mass seems to take a back seat (at least in the mind of playwright Adriano Shaplin) to its playful, poetic language. And while the language is fantastic (it has a bouncy, spoken-word modern-day flare that is great fun to hear from the mouths of downtrodden villagers), the suffering plotline makes it difficult to remain intellectually engaged. Rebecca Wright's hallucinatory direction is perfectly suited to Shaplin's writing. The carefully choreographed dance-inspired movements of the characters come across as part interpretive dance, part sign language, and though they have little bearing on the story, are at least fun to watch. Also, as with Shaplin's text, the artistry in Wright's direction doesn't do enough to make a convoluted story accessible.
The Bats, the Flea's resident acting company, are the play's strongest element. Their command of Shapiro's absurd movement and Shaplin's convoluted language are impressive — not one actor missed a beat in the play's fast-moving 90 minutes. Even more amazing, each character makes Shaplin's heightened text personal and relatable while keeping its jaunty fun intact (dropping "hey, bro"s and "btdub"s like pros).
Sarah Flood's design team, with a set by Caitlin Lainoff, lights by Dante Olivia Smith, and costumes by Nikki Delhomme, comes together to provide The Bats with an ethereal background for their story. Particularly integral to the show is the sound design, which is created by Shaplin himself. The play's instrumental music serves as a constant backdrop to underscore and highlight the action. Like a good movie soundtrack, it alerts the audience to upcoming moments of tension and deepens the tender moments.
Sarah Flood in Salem Mass is trying to do a lot. Shaplin and Wright's collaboration features drama, comedy, time travel, singing, dancing, and a lot of people acting like beavers. All of the production's facets are well-executed; however, unfortunately, no part of The Flea's Sarah Flood in Salem Mass is impactful enough to make up for its bizarre theatricality.