Dirt begins with a sly surprise: a first act that comes and goes before the audience realizes the theatre has even begun. It is a bit of theatricality meant to bring the audience into the show without knowing it so that the tale they are about to hear has more resonance: To make them players, even culprits, in the sad tale of Sad.
All it takes is to know one person's story.
Sad is an illegal immigrant from Iraq who sells roses on the street. He is lonely. Money is scarce. His roommate has defaulted on the electricity bill. The people to whom Sad tries to sell his roses treat him with utter disdain. And their disgust has had an impact on Sad: He feels intense hatred not just for his potential customers, but for himself.
Dirt was first performed in the United States in 2003 in an academic setting, and has been performed publicly since 2007 in New York and Europe. It will have its Canadian premiere at the Vancouver International Fringe Festival on Sept. 9, and will mark its 100th performance on Sept. 11.
As much as the one-man play feels like a post-9/11 tale, it was in fact written by Austrian novelist Robert Schneider in the early 1990s, a reaction to the first Gulf War.
"It's uncanny how relevant it is," says the play's star Christopher Domig, who was responsible for bringing it to the English-language stage. "When I tell people it was written almost 20 years ago, they just don't believe me."
Domig, 29, is an Austrian-American who grew up in Salzburg speaking English at home and German at school. Today he has no detectable accent; in English, he sounds like a native New Yorker.
He read Dirt in high school, in its original German. "What struck me is this ambivalence and this tension between loving a culture and hating it, between loving your home country and critiquing it."
In 2003, Domig was studying theatre in the U.S. and looking for a solo project to perform for his undergraduate thesis when he remembered Dirt. "What made those memories surface was that in '03, we were already well into the war in Iraq and Afghanistan and the whole question of what is Islam, what does it mean to be Muslim, what does it mean to be a foreigner ... were hot-button topics."
Domig found an English translation, but learned that it had never been performed. His project earned him an A.
When he moved to New York in 2006, he quickly learned how difficult it was to get work as an actor. He felt he could only thrive with a project of his own.
Dirt was the natural choice. "We're still at war and this play's still relevant and I really should do a proper run of it," he thought. He sent out 65 queries to producers and artistic directors. He received one response: a polite rejection.
Discouraged, he sought out Schneider, who met with Domig and offered his blessing. "He was immediately encouraging and said I think you should do it. ... It was a bit strange because I thought this guy hasn't seen me act. How does he know that he wants me to do the English [language]premiere of his play? I might totally screw it up."
He didn't. Domig staged Dirt at the 2007 New York Fringe Festival (which is semi-curated). It was a hit.
Since then, Domig has mounted the show off-Broadway, in London, Berlin and Vienna - in English. The guy who couldn't get a decent part has received some glowing reviews and landed roles in independent films. He's now talking to Schneider about adapting Dirt for film.
Its relevance persists. Witness Arizona's attempt to enact an anti-immigration law. "What pains me most," says Domig, "is that if you live in Arizona and you do not know an illegal immigrant and haven't spent the time to get to know them ... you will probably think in a much more clichéd way about the issue. All it takes is to know one person's story."
Spoiler alert: If you're wondering about that surprise beginning, Schneider's entire first act consists of one stage direction: a man sells roses outside the theatre. This is generally performed by Domig. When the curtain goes up inside and the audience recognizes the man they may have just dismissed, it puts everything to come into a critical context.
Dirt is at the Vancouver International Fringe Festival Sept. 9-18 ( www.vancouverfringe.com).