Puppets lend a hand to tale of a true eccentric
At the front of the Institute of Contemporary Art stage, a series of innocuous objects — a doorframe with a screen door, a camera on a tripod, a table and chair, a mailbox — are lined up neatly. They are incredibly accurate, down to the sheets on the bed, but are about one-quarter normal size, perfect for the series of puppets that represent “Disfarmer,’’ an eccentric Arkansas photographer and the subject of this theater piece that played at the ICA as part of the “Emerging America’’ festival.
Unfortunately, these beautifully detailed elements, and Dan Moses Schreier’s evocative, understated music, stand in sharp contrast to the vague narrative that drives “Disfarmer.’’ In an effort to capture the mundane existence and quirky obsessions of a man whose days consisted of leaving his house to buy a beer, drinking a beer, tinkering in his darkroom, measuring his foot, and writing a letter, the audience is left only with the tedium of his days rather than a sense of mystery, poignancy, or humanity.
Based on a real person, “Disfarmer’’ gathers the snippets of information known about Mike Disfarmer (1884-1959), but neither director-designer Dan Hurlin, who conceived the show and provides the narration as Disfarmer’s internal monologue, nor Sally Oswald, who wrote the text, contributes any insight. Born Mike Meyer, Disfarmer created his own history, changing his name to Disfarmer and insisting he’d been kidnapped by a tornado as a small child and dumped on the doorstep of the Meyers. He shunned the company of other people, although he was the local portrait photographer, and when several thousand of his negatives were discovered in the ’70s, he was hailed as a master of the studio portrait. His photos, some of which are projected on a screen, and through transparent plates, offer warm and revealing images of ordinary people that are, even in their stillness, more active than this theater piece.
“Disfarmer’’ opens with a charming reenactment of the tornado that swept up Mike Meyer, along with several farm animals, a car, and other assorted debris and dropped him miles from his family. Even as we see hands shaking the fence and a puppeteer waving a flat panel to create wind, we feel the fierce strength of the twister. The brilliance of this piece lies in the exquisite performances of the five puppeteers — Matt Acheson, Chris M. Green, Tom Lee, Darius Mannino, and Eric Wright — who manipulate the series of bunraku-style puppets that represent Mike Disfarmer. Hurlin uses “tabletop’’ puppetry, so the puppeteers are always visible, and they are so fluidly choreographed, with and without the puppets, the piece’s drama emerges from the movement much more than the text. Not only do the puppeteers give life to the action by providing hands that remove Disfarmer’s glasses before bed, play banjo, and hold the pen with which he writes a letter, they also become characters, Disfarmer’s neighbors, who testify to his eccentricities.
When “Disfarmer’’ opens, a series of photos, including pictures of trees and several fence sections, stand in front of three-dimensional miniature versions of them. The irony is, despite all of Hurlin’s exquisite details, he never draws the audience in deeper than those flat shots, and we’re left with only superficial information about Disfarmer, whose photos of individuals were so rich in emotion.
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