Dirt, presented by Punctuate! Theatre, is an incredibly interesting examination of how we treat those who are less fortunate in society, in this case those who are on welfare, and leaves you with the question who decides who, or what, is worthwhile in our society? As I wrote in my preview for the show, the play was originally written by Alberta playwright Ron Chambers during Klein era social spending cutbacks in 1993. Dirt takes place in a society where capitalism is king and the method of reducing the number of people on welfare is not through social support organizations, but by murdering them.
The play opens with a murder investigation where the main suspect is Murphy (played by Jeff Page), the victim’s boyfriend. We quickly find out that Murphy is on welfare and, according to lead detective Falkin (Elliot James), a “no-good, worthless” person. The situation quickly becomes bizarre when Greta (Andréa Jorawsky) is brought in as an armed, live-in guard for Murphy, despite her obvious lack of qualifications. What follows is a strange spiral into a world where it is accepted that one has to prove that they are worthy of living and the basic supports offered by a welfare state.
Several times throughout the show I was thrown out of the world of the play, but definitely NOT in a bad way because disappointment in the acting, story, or production elements.I was thrown out of the world of the play in a terrific way that really got the point of the show across. The bizarreness of the situation, which got increasingly stranger throughout the show, kept making me ask “is this really happening?!” and as a play that is a social commentary, that’s absolutely the point of it. A lot of the time when I’m interviewing directors about an upcoming show, I hear them say they let their actors run with the script and go big, and then they help the actors dial it back in the right places. While I can’t say if that was the case with Dirt, I would say there was no need for Director Liz Hobbs to dial back the actors. The point of a social commentary play is to be so extreme that the audience reflects on their current reality and then realizes, hey, maybe that isn’t so far off base from reality after all.
As is typical at Punctuate! Theatre, the acting in this show was wonderful, but Dirt also gave me the chance to see a different side of many of Punctuate!’s actor’s (and founding members) that I haven’t seen before: Andréa Jorawsky, who typically plays very strong female characters, in the role of a timid and apologetic Greta; and Elliot James in perhaps the sleaziest character I’ve ever seen on stage – the repulsive lead detective Falkin. However, Jeff Page in the role of Murphy, stole the show. Jeff previously appeared as Falkin in the original 1996 production of the play, and in the lead role of the show, it was easy to see why Punctuate! brought him back. One of my favourite moments of Jeff’s performance was when his pyroghy and cabbage roll-peddling neighbour Mrs. Boras (Rebecca Starr) hits him. Jeff’s physical reaction told a story of abuse and misunderstanding all on its own. Jeff created a holistic character for Murphy instead of relying on stereotypes associated with a person in his situation. Murphy is simultaneously vile and familiar, aggressive and tender, reasonable and unreasonable. Murphy is not a character the audience pities, but instead one whose character and situation we grow to understand as the play progresses.
Despite being an excellent play, one question I came into the play with (and, I must admit, I am left with this question) is how much of an impact Dirt had, being presented in the way that it was. Based on the report The Arts and Individual Well-Being in Canada by Hill Strategies Research, here’s how those Canadians who attend theatre shape up against those who don’t:
- They are much more likely to volunteer (50% vs. 28%);
- They are more likely to know their neighbours (46% vs. 41%);
- They are more likely to have helped a neighbour in the last month (70% vs. 61%).
Based on that data – and personal experience – I would say that people who already go to theatre are pretty community-minded people, so how much did Dirt really open the audience’s eyes to how we treat those who are less fortunate than ourselves? Maybe not that much. Punctuate! Theatre is still an emerging company, but with evocative works such as Dirt, I will be interested to see how the company engages in community outreach activities as it grows to bring these shows to audiences outside your “typical theatre goers” where they may have an even greater impact.
Dirt runs at the TACOS Space (10005 81 Avenue) February 19 – 24. The show is performed by two actors who were in the original production – Rebecca Starr and Jeff Page – as well as Elliot James, Andréa Jorawsky and Cliff Kelly. Dirt‘s full schedule can be found on YEGLive. Tickets are $15 – $20 and can be bought at Tix on the Square.