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Theater review: "Dirt, Ash, Dead Tree"

Queer Theatre Kalamazoo
Queer Theatre Kalamazoo
The poster for "Dirt, Ash, Dead Tree"

Queer Theatre Kalamazoo, with Face Off Theatre, recently presented the story of a young man’s search through fantasy and memory. WMUK’s Gordon Bolar has this review.

At the outset it should be noted that the cast of “Dirt, Ash, Dead Tree” commits themselves wholeheartedly and enthusiastically to Philadelphia writer Jarrett McCreary’s new play.

The four capable actors in director Yasir Muhammad’s ensemble displayed a range of emotions and tempos in delivering the fifteen or so scenes detailing the search of a troubled young gay black man named Dayo.

While each of the performers brought energy and enthusiasm to their work, their efforts weren’t enough to bring McCreary’s script and this production to life on the Dormouse Theatre stage.

It should also be noted that the play’s hard-hitting material related to suicide, self-harm and depression are worthy of the audience’s attention onstage. Despite this, the production I saw unfold at Dormouse Theatre Friday evening fell short of producing the kind of emotional impact and consideration that these subjects deserve.

The reasons for this lie in several problem areas: the audibility and clarity of key lines in the Dormouse Theatre auditorium, the shifting of scenes, a clear focus on Dayo’s choices, and the play’s ending.

The action centers around Dayo, played by Greg Miller, and his journey toward the truth about why he is caught in a vicious self-destructive cycle. Along the way he is counseled by court- ordered psychologist Louise (Ryan Tiara Jordan) and friend Julia (Jessica Krolick). In Dayo’s memories, dreams, flashbacks or altered states of mind, these two actors double as an owl and a lion, respectively, representing the wisdom and courage he seeks.

One challenge is that the play’s action must quickly shift from reality into Dayo’s fantasy world and back again. A related problem is that Dayo admits he often can’t tell the difference between reality and fantasy. Consequently, neither can the audience.

The production is encumbered by several long scene changes in which well-choreographed crew members diligently set out props and lug heavy couches or fully made beds on and off the stage. These set changes are accompanied by a loud, annoying, and repetitive heartbeat.

Black cubes or benches could have sufficed to suggest required office or bedroom settings. More important, but lacking, are the chronological guideposts and sequencing indicators for key decisions in Dayo’s life: his visits to the psychologist, his breakup with his male lover Micah, played by Adam Nyoff, and his choice to burn down the home he desperately seeks.

Multiple shifts in time and place found in magical realism can present challenges. Some of these are the interruption of the main character’s through-line of action, the blurring of choices made along the way, and prevention of an audience building an emotional bond with the character. Such is the case in our relationship with Dayo and our reluctance to embrace his journey.

Because McCreary’s script jumps around so frequently, we lose our perspective on Dayo’s character development, and on any progression or regression he might be making.

More concerning are the multitude of questions accompanying the play’s ending.

Still alive, Dayo lies prone in the ruins of the home and the body he has destroyed after an attempted suicide. He says he wants to live. But what motivates him to make this choice? And where does the play’s final statement, “This is the art of starting over,” really come from?

Are these words merely repeated advice from his psychologist? Or does this phrase represent a hard-won realization and gritty life-affirming choice on the part of Dayo himself?

Since there is something that speaks louder than words, could some action by Dayo indicating a new beginning and rise from his own ashes have made this a stronger final moment?

We may never know, but with such weighty themes and a young man’s life and recovery at stake, one can’t help but wonder.