As much as we all might love Hamlet and Company, it is critical that theatres (and other arts organizations) support new and evolving work that reflects current issues, perspectives, voices. Bas Bleu Theatre, which more commonly produces established plays such as Equus and Waiting for the Parade, has tapped local author Laura Pritchett to create a new piece for their stage. The resulting work, Dirt, A Terra Nova Expedition, did not land for me, but I applaud Bas Bleu for making space for contemporary work in its season.
Dirt is an environmentally-conscious drama that begins with two young students in an underground bunker, the terrestrial world having turned apocalyptically uninhabitable. Estella is unexpectedly pregnant; Leo is dying. In order to leave Estella and the baby with as many food rations as possible, Leo climbs the ladder to the poisoned world above, leaving Estella to face survival alone. Estella entertains herself by imagining her own play, where characters including Charles Darwin and her own father act out the story of how humans so mistreated the Earth’s soil that the world died. Eventually a very pregnant Estella leaves the bunker and finds a chance at a new world, a terra nova where humanity rectifies its mistakes and finally respects the fertile, life-giving soil.
While this premise is clear and compelling, I found Dirt to be impenetrable. Pritchett’s script is overwritten, coming off as unnatural where it aims to be lyrical (“tell me a tale of stem and stone”, “we have a mortality salience”). Pritchett’s notes in the program book suggest she wants to avoid moralizing, but the scientific facts about the importance of soil are not blended in as naturally as perhaps she intends. Much of the script felt like a bibliography, where dropping the names (including but not limited to Homer, Wendell Berry, Rachel Carson, Amy Siedell, Plato, Aldo Leopold) became more important than making their messages resonate.
Estella’s play-within-a-play, which takes up most of the first act, is meandering, full of confusing characters — I heard a lot of “who is that, again?” whispered behind me — and a dance sequence that goes on too long. It is baffling at times — if I am correct that Estella is daydreaming this play, then what is she filming when she whips out her phone? Why does she shout “Cut!” and “Action!” if this is a play and not a movie? Most importantly, what does this sub-play add to the larger story, besides forcing an opportunity for six people to recite quotes about dirt?
The production has problems as well. Jacob Richardson plays the boyfriend Leo; during this performance at least, he did not seem to have a handle on his script. Leo, dying of some unnamed plague, has perhaps the most dramatic material in the show, but Richardson delivers panicked lines such as “There’s likely nothing up there!” and “Estella, I have to die!” in the same unaffected tone that one might order a pizza. Tabitha Tyree as Estella is stronger, but still fails to bring much emotion to the stage — not when she encounters strange new creatures living aboveground, not when she finds her dead boyfriend’s rucksack, not when she gives birth to her daughter (named Eva, unsurprisingly). Tyree’s best scenes take place when she interacts with her father, played by Kevin Coldiron. (Coldiron is apparently making his stage debut, and I would not have guessed it. He gives a strong performance.)
Zhanna Gurvich’s scenic design is more successful, full of water stains, cinderblocks and tree roots that suggest the underground bunker. Director Jeffrey Bigger has also cast some wonderful dancers (Aleah Black, Holly Wedgeworth and Francis Lister, who also choreographed the pieces) — though their best sequence simultaneously distracts from a Lakota creation story being translated on a video screen.
Dirt: A Terra Nova Expedition could use some workshopping. Currently there are too many ideas, too many gimmicks, too many distractions — they are getting in the way of the fact that Pritchett obviously cares a great deal about this topic and wants us too, as well. I have not heard many stories about the importance of soil, and I believe there is a time-sensitive tale being told somewhere in the depths of this play. It’s only a matter of digging.
Erica Reid is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.