Ashes to Ashes

October 17, 2012

Holly Twyford portrays Harper, whose mysterious death fuels “Dirt.”

When playwright Bryony Lavery, whose play “Frozen” was nominated for a Tony Award in 2004, set out to write “Dirt” for the Studio Theatre’s Studio Lab, she hit on a scenario that haunts the most independent of us: What if you died in your apartment and nobody found you for days?

Instead of focusing on the “Law & Order: SVU”-esque horror of the situation, Lavery turns it into an elegant exploration of everyone’s favorite thought experiment: the question of Schrodinger’s cat.

Physicist Erwin Schrodinger explained the contradictory properties of quantum mechanics by imagining a cat sealed in a box with a radioactive substance that has a 50 percent chance of decaying and poisoning the cat. Until you open the box, you don’t know whether the cat is alive or dead — and therefore it is, philosophically, both alive and dead.

In a similar situation is the play’s main character, Harper (Holly Twyford) — whose mother happens to give lectures on quantum physics in the first act of the play. Alone in her apartment after a dinner date with her boyfriend, Harper suddenly dies. But no one notices for a while. And the lives of the other characters roll on without her, diverted by sex, acting and other worldly pursuits.

“Nobody has discovered her,” Lavery says, “so is she alive or dead?”

Meanwhile, Harper’s ghost contemplates what’s happened to her body and what will happen to all of us.

“It’s an exploration of what are we and where do we go to,” Lavery says. “Do we simply turn into dirt?” — as the play’s title ponders — “or does something else happen?”

The play is existential, but it’s also, later, about figuring out what caused Harper’s death. What assaulted Harper’s body? What overpowered her? And what happened next? The answers unpack issues of environmentalism, religion and what it means for a person to be clean.

“Leave it to Bryony to take the subject of death and decomposition and turn it almost into a comedy,” says Studio Artistic Director David Muse, who was surprised by “how light and buoyant [the play] feels, given that it’s about a woman who dies and whose body rots.”


Holly Twyford and Matthew Montelongo star as lovers separated by petty squabbles — oh, and death.

About the Lab: Conventional wisdom holds that, when we pay for a theater ticket, we want to see a show that’s finished, preferably something vetted by critics and Broadway audiences. (You wouldn’t go to a restaurant unrated on Yelp, right?) But there’s also an appeal to seeing theater in the making, if only for later bragging rights. The Studio Theatre’s Lab program, now in its second year, has a simple pricing system: Every ticket is $20. Compare that to a $109 ticket to Saturday’s performance of “One Night with Janis Joplin” at Arena Stage or $55 to $95 to see “The Government Inspector” at Shakespeare Theatre. So far, the Lab has only had one production per year: Last year started with the world premiere of Duncan MacMillan’s “Lungs,” and this year, Bryony Lavery’s “Dirt” makes its world premiere, too. The Lab produces new plays only, and the criteria are different from the rest of the plays in a season.

“We don’t necessarily look for a play that’s finished,” says Artistic Director David Muse, “because part of the idea of the Lab is that we’re developing it.”

Though both “Dirt” and “Lungs” involve environmental issues — “Dirt” deals, in part, with our use of hazardous chemicals to clean and perfume ourselves, while “Lungs” is partly about the carbon footprint of raising a child — Muse didn’t choose them based on the fact that young people, the Lab’s target audience, are worried about the planet’s future.

“We’re just looking for a writer we’re excited about,” Muse says, “something that lights our fire for whatever reason and feels produceable on the scale of the Lab as it currently exists.”

The Lab’s ticket prices bring experimental theater to people who might not normally go to a play they’ve never heard of. They can be assured that Studio doesn’t send its B-team out just because the tickets are cheap: In the Lab’s first year, Studio got one of D.C.’s most prominent directors, Aaron Posner, to direct its bare-bones production of “Lungs.” This year, it’s throwing even more hometown talent at the project: four-time Helen Hayes Award-winner Holly Twyford stars as the play’s lead, Harper, and Muse takes the helm as director.

“I think what’s rare is for a theater to say to a playwright, ‘We understand your work isn’t done yet, but we’re going to have the courage to say, “We believe in you, and we’re going to produce it,” ’ ” Muse says. “It’s like, ‘Let’s invest in this together. Let’s build it.’”

The Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW; through Nov. 11, $20; 202-332-3300. (Dupont Circle)
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