Dirty, Co-Presented by A Contemporary Theatre and Washington Ensemble Theatre, in Seattle, WA was a night of theatre I will not soon forget! It was brave and bold, and the impact of the story sneaks up on you in the most subtle and seductive way, and when it finally hits you, you are rocked to your core!
This play tells the story of Matt Barnes, an investment guy who transitions his life from elevated loan shark to owner of his own porn website all in the name of bringing some ‘good’ morality to the porn industry. Matt’s goal is to provide an option to porn lovers that neither degrades women, nor exploits violence against women, but instead uses age appropriate actors in passionate scenes. In addition to providing a good clean sex option in a sea of barely legal girls in pigtails performing in a rape fantasies, Matt wants to take his good works one step further: give 90% of the profits to organizations who help survivors of human trafficking. In order to accomplish this, he needs his wife’s buy off, his ex-boss’s financial backing and the right ‘face’ of his website. The story explores whether one can stick to the high standards one sets for themself when money and livelihood is on the line. And this production explores it with the most deliciously talented cast I have seen in a long time.
Let’s start with Matt Barnes, played by the ridiculously talented Anthony Darnell. This man is an actor, ladies and gentlemen! He’s pure genius in this role. His delivery of monologue after monologue just got better with each speech and as the protagonist of this show, Mr. Darnell anchors the show brilliantly. The journey that Matt Barnes takes is raw, emotional, and while funny at times, is really a dark look at the struggle we all face between morality and money. This was my first time seeing Mr. Darnell on stage, and I look forward to many more performances from him because his acting was exquisite!
Matt’s antagonist through the play is split between two important people in his life: his wife, Katie (LoraBeth Barr), and his boss Terry (Ali Al-Gasseir). These two act as the angel and devil on his shoulders, each playing their part perfectly. Katie raises the stakes of her influence over Matt by being pregnant with their first child, a daughter, who she uses when necessary to apply pressure to keep Matt’s morality in check. Terry, on the other hand, is the financial backer of Matt’s company, and uses that as leverage as often as possible to keep blurring, and at times, moving the boundary lines that Matt set up for himself and the company in order to maximize profits! And when push comes to shove, and Katie won’t budge on issues, Matt seems to always point out that the more money they make, the more money they have to give away to the foundations supporting survivors of human trafficking, and that seems to lessen Katie’s resolve to a point. This relationship triangle ebbs and flows through this story, forcing Matt to be swayed in a new direction every time he turns around because Ms. Barr and Mr. Al-Gasseir are so strong in their performances. This trio of messed up, volatile characters trying to figure out how to get what they want was absolutely mesmerizing to watch!
The cast is rounded out by the ‘face’ of the website, Mikayla, played by Leah Salcido Pfenning, who will be the leading star of this high morale porn site of Matt’s. She’s young (younger than Katie would prefer her to be), she’s beautiful, she’s sexy, and most importantly, she’s the daughter of a sex trafficking victim. She’s perfect. Except, she has an agenda of getting as much money as she can to help pay for law school and support herself and her younger 15 year old sister. She agrees to be the website’s star, and is quite happy to be a driving force of the company’s success. They give her the stage name, America, and inch by inch, the high morality of the company begins to drop as the popularity of America builds. Ms. Salcido Pfenning is epic in this role! Every moment she is on stage is full of fire, and her acting intentions so friggin clear, and she is grounded so very much in each and every moment, that the shift her character takes at the end of the play absolutely blind sided me! And I loved it! Mikayla is supposed to be the hope of something better, so when she turns out to just be another statistic, this reviewer’s heart was broken, because Ms. Salcido Pfenning’s performance was that good. Bravo!
The other four roles in the show were of two porn stars (Nik Doner and Heidi Korndorffer), the big porn company CEO, Jacob (John Pyburn), and Mikayla’s little sister April, played by the incomparable Jasmine Sim. Ms. Sim, the innocence of the show, has the most difficult challenge, in my opinion. She had to go from being the young, vibrant, full of life 15 year old to the dead-eyed, heartbroken, exploited victim of sexual abuse. This actress, this unbelievably amazing actress, had a moment on stage that I haven’t seen in a long time. It’s after she’s been exploited as part of a ploy Mikayla created to leverage Matt to sell his company to the big porn company and make a ton of money for herself, and she is alone in a room with Matt. Matt has given in to the ploy, Katie has screamed at him and stormed off to the hospital to have their baby alone because she’s so disappointed in Matt selling out, and the bad guys have all won. April asks Matt where he’s going, and he says to the hospital for the birth of his baby. April asks him if it’s a boy or a girl, and when Matt says a girl, the moment Ms. Sim creates is absolutely heart wrenching. The look of shock and fear on her face as she imagines a ruthless man like this being a father to a daughter…a man who would not stand up for her and her sister, who sold away his company to a sick man who will continue to exploit and abuse young women was sheer perfection. As a classically trained actor, I know what it takes to sink into a moment to create that level of reality and truth, and Ms. Sim was absolutely tremendous and pulled the entire audience into her moment. Thank you, Ms. Sim, for that experience! You had many audience members talking about that moment as they left the theatre, myself included. Bravo!
The production of this show successfully matched the acting perfectly. Michael Place’s direction was tight and inspired, Ali Rose Panzarella’s costumes were stunning and clarified each character’s journey from clean to dirty (or vice versa), but the most successful element for me was Tommer Peterson’s set design. This pristinely white set, with varying levels, white furniture jutted out into the audience, allowing a wonderful stage for the actors to play on. Watching the morality getting more and more muddy and dirty as the play went on, made the set that much more bright, that much more clean. The juxtaposition was beautiful, and the entire production staff should be very proud of their creation!
This show is so many things, but at its core, it tells the truth! It tells the hard, ugly, frustrating truth of how we, as humans, have choices to make, and we aren’t always perfect in making those choices. Consequences are real. The good guys don’t always win. And there will be days where we go against our moral compasses in order to make a buck. It happens. To the best of people, every day, it happens, and I’m so honored to have witnessed the exquisite bravery of Dirty. This show had grit, this show had honesty, and this show had some of the best acting I’ve seen in a long time!
Dirty closes tomorrow, but if you have the chance, please go see it’s closing performance! You won’t be disappointed. Showtime and ticket information can be found on ACT’s website.
Loved it! Adored it! Was absolutely moved by it!
I give it a Standing Ovation!
Ciao for now,
Photos from Washington Ensemble’s Facebook Page