Theater Review: “Dirt” at Studio Theatre

Studio’s Lab Series stages the world premiere of Bryony Lavery’s meditation on the stuff humans are made of.
Holly Twyford in Dirt. Photograph by Scott Suchman.
Holly Twyford in Dirt. Photograph by Scott Suchman.

To consider
Bryony Lavery’s world premiere play,
Dirt, currently at Studio Theatre, it helps to recall a particular soliloquy from Act 2,
Scene 2 of
Hamlet. “This majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why it appears no other thing to
me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors,” Hamlet confesses. “What a piece
of work is man! . . . And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?”

The action in
Dirt takes place under a canopy of thousands of twinkling lights and on top of almost
6,000 pounds of mulch, the smell of which wafts gently around the room, summoning
up springtime, compost, and children’s playgrounds. It’s a quintessence of dirt, which,
as Harper (
Holly Twyford) tells the audience, is just the inside name for “earth.” Throughout the show, the
actors walk barefoot in it, sit on it, even roll around in it, emphasizing in a sometimes
tiresome way the elemental state to which we’ll all return, thanks to bacteria, maggots,
and the thoroughly gruesome process of decomposition.

Harper runs us through this process in nauseating detail. Early on in the first act,
she informs us that she will soon die, and proceeds to dictate her own actions in
an eerily distant way. “The body. It talks to itself,” she says, before running through
her own process in getting ready for a date. “The body” applies lipstick, selects
an outfit, and, in a possibly unconscious reference to
Silence of the Lambs, puts the lotion on its skin.

In fact, all of Lavery’s characters seem to talk in inner monologues, even when they’re
having conversations with one another. There’s the waitress/voiceover artist (Natalia Payne) who acts out her résumé of stage skills (swordfighting, accents, mime) while serving
Harper and her boyfriend Matt (Matthew Montelongo) their dinner in a generically fancy restaurant. Guy (Ro Boddie), a former drug addict turned reiki healer, tells us his story in the language of
therapy-speak: His “external landscape,” we hear, was all about getting high and screwing
around in “bars, alleys, houses,” but his “interior landscape” was totally empty.
Harper’s mother, May (Carolyn Mignini), lectures students on the principle of Schrödinger’s cat, whereby an entity might
be both alive and dead at the same time.

The problem with raising all these lofty ideas about the meaning of human existence
is that the ensuing drama gets lots in a fog of philosophical ideas, metaphysical
statements, and uncomfortable truths. The elemental ideas surrounding life and death
are interesting, for sure, but without a concrete plot to guide them, they just feel
plain confusing. Lavery frequently makes her characters utter different speeches at
the same time, the result being that neither’s words are understood. And there are
so many different symbols thrown around—a butterfly pupating, a fearless rat standing
still in an alley, the trashbags and flowers on Harper’s final shopping list—that
the weight of them all starts to feel oppressive.

It’s possible, of course, that there was no meaning intended in the first place. But
the concluding suggestion that humans are dirt—nothing more, nothing less—feels almost
like a con after such a long dance around all the other ideas at play. Director
David Muse draws funny, engaging performances out of his talented cast, with Twyford as fearless
as ever and Payne particularly endearing as the neurotic, self-obsessed Elle. But
it’s hard not to long for a more concrete plot to pin down the show’s ethereal and
lofty concepts. This production, a part of Studio’s Lab series to help workshop and
refine new plays, still feels unfinished, even as its characters explore the finality
of life with a blithe sense of inevitability.

Dirt
is at Studio Theatre through November 11. Running time is about two hours and 15 minutes,
including one intermission. The show contains scenes of a graphic nature. Tickets
($11) are available via Studio’s website.

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