Monday, February 02, 2009

New Review: Disfarmer

For Back Stage.

Here's the tease:

How do you dramatize an enigma? In Disfarmer -- a piece about the mid-20th-century portrait photographer Mike Disfarmer -- conceiver, director, and designer Dan Hurlin, the endlessly inventive master of puppet theatre, deliberately chooses not to fill in any of the gaps. Disfarmer was so elusive, so odd as he lived quietly and alone for decades in rural Heber Springs, Ark., that it's Hurlin's conceit to dramatize not what we know of the man but what we don't.

For example, we don't know why Mike Meyers rejected the farming life and his German ancestry and changed his surname to Disfarmer, which sounds like it's intended to deny his heritage. We don't know why he claimed to have landed in the Meyers family by dint of a tornado. We don't know why he worked in glass-plate photography, passé by the time he began in 1917. Questions, not answers, are Hurlin's focus.

Whether accompanied by a bluesy, evocative onstage band (including banjo, drum, and fiddle) or by prerecorded music from Edison wax cylinders and other aural artifacts, a succession of Disfarmer look-alike puppets, each one two inches smaller than the last, are seen heading to bed or awakening, drinking too much, and engaging in such neurotic pursuits as measuring the distances around his ramshackle home or his photography studio to ensure that all is stable in his world. (I could not help but notice that all the Disfarmer puppets resemble the American architect Philip Johnson.)

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