In an interview with The Brooklyn Rail, playwright Zhu Yi says she sees “the cruelty and absurdity in how humans center the world around ourselves.” Her play You Never Touched the Dirt, receiving its New York premiere at Clubbed Thumb’s Summerworks (while almost simultaneously premiering in China), uses one family, in one upscale gated lakeside community in the countryside outside Shanghai, as a microcosm of that absurdity and that cruelty: in the way humans relate to the physical world and the way we treat one another; in the complex relationships within families and across internal rifts in class and culture; and also in the way the physical world persists beyond and without us. (The details of how gentrification warps rural societies are specific to China, but the issues are familiar to any resident of a capitalist society.) And the strikingly clever production, excellently directed by Ken Rus Schmoll, finds a perfect visual idiom to capture the play’s complicated tone, using manipulations of scale to create both deadpan humor and a weird poignancy, and representing the natural elements of the world with a defiant pop-art artificiality. (The house and tree next to it, in Andrew Moerdyk’s set, are literal microcosms–perfectly realistic scale models that make the villa about the height of a barstool.)
Yuan Dong Lake, formerly the center of a farming and fishing community, is now Moonlight Lake: the center of a luxury development, designed to appeal to wealthy Shanghai residents purchasing lakefront villas, expanding at a rapid rate and swallowing up the land of local village after local village. The villagers, most of whom originally received their land a generation or two back when Chairman Mao redistributed property in the area, no longer own their former farms, but don’t for the most part have anywhere else to go, either. While they were paid (as part of a process that sounds roughly analogous to eminent domain), the money supported improvements to their local homes and lives, but wasn’t really enough to allow a family to move to the city and start over–even if they wanted to. So most of the former-farmer residents remain, trapped between one world and another, working as housekeepers and gardeners and handymen for the rich people who bought out their birthright.
The Li family owns the villa known as Spain (the domestic staff identifies the homes by their architectural styles). Mr. Li (Kenneth Lee) is a successful businessman in the city who commutes back and forth to the villa at weekends; his wife (Jennifer Lim) lives there full-time, mostly alone, as their daughter is in college in America. Their relationship with the land is ornamental, transactional: they import a fancy tree from another region to plant in their garden and then later chop it down when they want to build a shed. They have a small decorative vegetable patch and later chickens, but the main virtue of the chickens is to show off “organic” meat to their city friends.
The people Mrs. Li sees the most are their gardener, Zhou (John D. Haggerty), the farmer who formerly owned the property and still feels a deep attachment to it, and the next-door neighbors’ maid (Julyana Soelistyo), who like Mrs. Li is generally alone in the villa all week. At first, Mrs. Li is nothing but suspicious: she tries to fire Zhou because she suspects him of stealing the duck and the sheep (it couldn’t possibly be one of the “wealthy decent people” in the gated community) she was fattening up to feed her daughter. But she starts to recognize the rhythms of the community–as difficult as that is when she and her husband, in “Spain,” really might as well live in a different country than her neighbors do.
For a short play, it’s full of complex relationships: The Lis’ marriage, without their daughter at the center, reveals its hollowness, but they come back together to share hopes for the future. Mrs. Li builds a tentative friendship with the woman next door, based on loneliness and also local gossip, which includes a good bit of dirt about Zhou’s deadbeat son. Zhou and Mr. Li realize they’re peers–the same age–but that connection only goes so far, and when Zhou wants a favor, he realizes how transactional their relationship is. Zhou fetishizes his “ancestral” connection to the land, but the Local Earth God (see below) is at pains to remind him how brief that connection is in the sweep of time. Zhou may feel his relationship to nature is more authentic than the Lis’, but ultimately it, too, is centered around himself.
And the human world, as layered as it is, isn’t the only realm in the play; Zhu Yi also creates a set of “characters” in the animal kingdom and in the spiritual dimensions. The animals, all played by toys or props and voiced by ensemble members Holly Chou and Daniel K. Isaac (in matching costumes that combine flower-print shirts that evoke a stylized nature with the kind of pants chefs or restaurant workers wear), play key plot roles: the sheep that disappears and returns pregnant (stuffed, and stuffed with an also-stuffed tiny lamb); the Lis’ dog, Jojo, and their neighbor’s (inflatable), who have a “friends with benefits” sort of relationship; a goose that attacks Jojo, and a flock of chickens (made, I think, from handbags; I don’t know whether Schmoll, set designer Andrew Moerdyk, or prop designer Raphael Mishler should be credited with them, but they’re one of the cleverest pieces of low-tech stagecraft I’ve seen in ages). And then there’s the spirits, all ambivalent and with ambiguous relationships to humanity: a Local Earth God (Isaac), at pains to remind the humans both that they are mortal and that they can leave this place; the spirit of the tree the Lis cut down (Chou); the ghost of a child who drowned in the lake.
Director Ken Rus Schmoll finds the perfect rhythm for the piece, using the scene breaks as a kind of structural punctuation that ties the disparate realms together. All the design elements are spot on: Moerdyk’s set, which so perfectly encapsulates the play’s themes and tone, gets special kudos, but Brendan Aanes’s sound design, with little touches like the noise of a swiveling security camera, also adds a great deal. And Schmoll gets wonderful performances out of the cast, both in the more realist human characters (especially Lee and Haggerty, whose different kinds of masculinity are on full display in their performances) and the fantastical and absurd elements (Isaac as the Local Earth God/real estate agent is particularly hilarious, channeling a kind of world-weary majesty that chastises and chuckles at the foibles of humanity simultaneously; but then the ghost child is genuinely chilling and unsettling).
And then there’s the bits of slapstick physical comedy: The fight between a toy goose and a toy dog. The scene where four full-size human actors work to cut down a scale model tree using a scale model chainsaw. Mr. Li trying to mow his own lawn and being unable to control the mower (a Fisher-Price-style toy).
There’s a lot going on for a 90-minute play–perhaps too much at times. And there are a few key emotional pivots that might not entirely hold water (especially Mrs. Li’s turn from having Zhou beaten up to counting on him to come to her rescue). But these are tiny quibbles given the richness of character and the economical way in which this world is drawn–and especially given how wonderful the production is: witty, smart, absurdist, but also poignant. And while Zhu Yi draws a sharp portrait of a particular time and place in modern China, she also points to the ways in which the growth of capitalism warps relationships of community, family, and society–a lesson we see played out, certainly, in America as well.