Sunday, 3 July 2016

A Perfect Specimen - Black Swan State Theatre Company (30 June 2016)

There is much to like about this play that emerged from the development crucible of the Black Swan Emerging Writers Group. It is an exquisitely handsome production to look at from the detailed costumes to Joe Lui’s evocative lighting design to the velvet draped surrounds of the set. It is an interesting premise with rich dialogue that befits the theatricality of the subject matter and good performances, none finer than Greg McNeill’s Cornell Wurlitzer. Ultimately, however, the play didn’t work for me due to some scripting issues and, notably, a decision on how to present one of the central characters, the so-called Ape Woman, Julia Pastrana, played by Adriane Daff.

Indeed, the story is about how Pastrana’s husband Theodore Lent (Luke Hewitt) exploits her notorious appearance for financial gain, both as an ‘exhibit’ in a travelling freak show and for examination by curious physicians. When Pastrana becomes pregnant their relationship takes on all the aspects of a searing tragedy and there is no denying the power of some of these moments, notably the birth and its aftermath.

The essential concern is this. Pastrana is referred to and describes herself as a monster, hideous and grotesque, covered in fur. When first we see the character she is clad from top to bottom and sporting a veil. Once revealed, however, there is seemingly no attempt to disguise the elfin Daff’s delicate beauty. This is no monster; this is not someone to recoil from. The issue is further exacerbated by the fact that we never see how an audience reacts to her Pastrana; how humiliating those examinations might be. We are only told how difficult the character’s life is yet never witness it.

While I understand it might be problematic to present the character as a full on ‘freak’, this was far too safe an option. If you’re going to tell me over and over and over how hideous this person is then I’d rather you swing for the fences and possibly miss than seemingly avoid the situation. It is a critical suspension of disbelief issue. Daff is otherwise fine in the role though saddled somewhat with an exaggerated accent that made her sound like a na├»ve child at times.

There were also a few curious scripting issues. The play opens with a wonderfully theatrical Hewitt as carnival barker entreating us to be amazed and horrified at such a creature. It hooked me straight away and had me eagerly awaiting what comes next as any salesman might wish. Only to be disappointed when the next scene not only doesn’t reveal the ‘monster’ but takes us to a drawing room where Igor Sas (Doctor Gregory Alyokhin) gives a long monologue about Russian ghosts. 

Sorry, what? I thought we were talking about physical appearance and how we marvel at and fear those that are different. How inner beauty triumphs over outer monstrosity. A Russian ghost story felt thematically like a totally different play and it’s a lot of stage time to chew up so early. The essence of that scene, when we finally get to the point, is Alyokhin requesting to examine Pastrana and Lent coldly demanding a princely sum to do so. The delay in getting there stalled the momentum so precisely won at the opening.

Contrast this with the wonderfully written and beautifully performed monologue by McNeill as Wurlitzer recounts the tale of discovering co-joined twins. It cuts straight to the heart of not only the fascination with physical otherness but the beguiling economic implications for those who are poor beyond measure and the opportunists that prey on them. I was squirming in my seat at the gut-wrenching tale in all its manifest horror.

Likewise, the play ends with Hewitt reprising the opening introduction but now through the prism of all the tragedy and heartless gain as a result. It is a perfect conclusion as he recedes into the shadows, the character more monstrous than any he could ever hope to exhibit. Yet the play continues with a long scene that felt like the sort of epilogue you really would be better off Googling at home. Sure, there is some pleasure in watching two stalwarts of the local theatre scene in McNeill and Sas mixing it up but it was a redundant expository scene that leached away the impact of Hewitt’s exit.

The other player here is Rebecca Davis as the long and lithesome acrobat Marian Trumbull, a character who is not only cheating on her husband with Lent, but is concocting more extreme acts to remain relevant. Why would the punters pay to watch feats of skill when there is an ape-woman to behold? Bold and exuding more than a faint sense of desperation it’s a well-judged performance.

A couple of other excellent scenes feature Hewitt, first with Daff as the two are at loggerheads about what to do with the baby, his solution so implacably practical and horrific; the second as McNeill’s Wurlitzer takes Lent to task for going too far. For a man who has seen it all even Wurlitzer is disgusted by the depths Lent will go to and Hewitt doesn’t blink when pushing that envelope.

Black Swan sometimes falls too in love with the technical wizardry on offer and director Stuart Halusz’s decision to use a rotating stage – a central circle and an outer rim that both moved independent of each other – took me out of the ‘old world’ so meticulously crafted with music, costuming, lighting, sound design, props such as a working gramophone, and makeup. The slickness of revolving pieces of set into place worked against the sense of mystery and weight of history that hangs over the story. Actors could also be seen behind the string curtain moving props and pieces of set onto that revolving stage while scenes were in progress.

It is, however, undoubtedly an audacious tale by playwright Nathaniel Moncrieff and shows yet again the strength of the local writing talent in this state. What a wonderful opportunity to have it performed at the Studio Underground with such a strong cast. With some judicious rearrangement and editing of the script and bolder choices in terms of execution this could be a memorable work. At the moment though it doesn’t quite convince but is worth the price of admission to gawk at a theatrical curiosity newly given birth.

Written by Nathaniel Moncrieff, Directed by Stuart Halusz and starring Adriane Daff, Rebecca Davis, Luke Hewitt, Greg McNeill, and Igor Sas, A Perfect Specimen is on at the State Theatre Centre until 17 July.

*images courtesy of Daniel James Grant

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