When I was in Grade 9, our English teacher Mr. Hillen handed out six or seven books at the start of the year. (Merchant of Venice, an Agatha Christie mystery, Geoffrey Trease’s Cue for Treason, anthologies of short stories, poetry, and plays, and maybe something else I can’t remember. ) Being introduced to Shakespeare made a difference to my life in the long run, but the immediate change came from the implied permission to start reading my parents’ collection of murder mysteries. Mr. Hillen told us the order that we’d encounter the works on the curriculum, and said we could feel free to read ahead in any of them, except that we should not read the last play in the anthology because he wanted us to encounter it fresh in class. That of course was an irresistible briar patch to an enthusiastic reader, even one who already loved the English teacher, so over the year I would sneak glances at different bits of that last play, and I never did encounter it fresh and all of a piece. As it turned out, we didn’t get around to reading it in class anyway, so I never got to discuss it, but Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery stuck in my head as a very strange dangerous world, that sounded normal until it suddenly didn’t.
That was a very long time ago, and it hasn’t been a foundation of my literary framework in the meantime either. But partway through watching the opening-night performance of Punctuate! Theatre’s production of Ron Chambers’ Dirt, I thought, Ooh, this scapegoating is working like The Lottery. Whether that shows the benefit of English class or the more devious benefit of telling kids not to read something, I’ll leave for the, ahem, reader.
Anyway. Dirt is directed by Liz Hobbs, and performed by Elliott James, Cliff Kelly, Andréa Jorawsky, Jeff Page, and Rebecca Starr. It starts out with a familiar-seeming setting and characters – police investigating a murder, a suspect living on the margins of society. But it gets odd, a little bit at a time. The pair of investigating officers were immediately identifiable as the conscientious anxious young one (Cliff Kelly), and the confident preeningly-masculine and politically-right-wing more experienced officer (Elliott James). When the performance started, the two officers were standing in front of a rough burlap-bag curtain, which they then opened to reveal the home of their chief suspect, where the rest of the story was set. Murphy (Jeff Page) was under suspicion because he was the boyfriend of the murdered woman, and because he was a foulmouthed dirty loner on welfare.
The senior officer Falkin bullies Murphy and threatens him with the death penalty. When Murphy protests that we don’t have the death penalty any more, Falkin goes off on a rant about how it might be reinstated and would be cheaper than keeping people in prison. He then says that as a cheaper alternative to keeping him in custody while the case is investigated, he is leaving Murphy under house arrest with an armed guard, Greta (Andréa Jaworsky). The fifth character in the story, a local woman making deliveries of homemade food to Murphy, is played by Rebecca Starr. She was playing a very familiar kind of character that I recognized from life and she was doing it in a very funny way. I really enjoyed her.
The story progresses with Murphy and Greta clashing in predictable ways and starting to get to know each other. He doesn’t like having a fussy outsider in his house, and complains about the police sealing up the window in his unventilated bathroom. She thinks his house is dirty and doesn’t want him to keep his “long gonch” (long underwear, for those not familiar with the regionalism) on the kitchen table. But gradually he begins telling her some of his hard-luck stories, and she gets won over along with the audience (or at least me!). I could see why his projects never worked out, but at the same time I liked him for trying and felt sorry for him for not being able to think them through.
Yet every time Falkin burst back in to the house, he seemed more offensive. It took me a long time to decide that he was objectively out-of-line, because he was a classic example of that trope of bigoted bullying cop. By the end of it, I was completely on the side of Murphy and/or of Greta. And around about then, I started thinking in a horrified way about planned scapegoating.
Dirt was an interesting, thought-provoking contribution to the Punctuate! Theatre season. Upcoming they have a dance show and then Hannah Moskovitch’s East of Berlin.