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The cruelties of God, evolution & showbusiness

Jonathan W Marshall: Nathaniel Moncrieff’s A Perfect Specimen

A Perfect Specimen A Perfect Specimen
photo Daniel James Grant

A Perfect Specimen is a new work by young WA playwright Nathaniel Moncrieff. It portrays “human oddity” Julia Pastrana, an indigenous Mexican woman who suffered hypertrichosis and was exhibited as a “human ape” due to her thick facial features, heavy jaw and beard. Pastrana died shortly after giving birth in 1860 while touring Russia with her husband, impresario Theodore Lent who toured on with the mummified bodies of Pastrana and her child.

Pastrana’s remains were still on display in 1976, when they were stolen and vandalised. She was laid to rest in Mexico 2013 at the intervention of artist Laura Barbata who was prompted by her sister Kathleen Culebro’s staging of Shaun Prendergast’s 1989 play The True History of the Tragic Life and Triumphant Death of Julia Pastrana, the Ugliest Woman in the World. [A musical, Pastrana, by Australian writers Allan McFadden and Peter Northwood was performed by Melbourne's Church Theatre in 1989. Eds]

Such human exhibits have attracted theatre-makers since Bernard Pomerance’s Elephant Man (1977). Their frequently tragic lives offer an opportunity to explore the darker side of theatre’s love of spectacle and display, while the relationship between ‘freaks,’ their managers and the public, is typically shown to be tangled. In Pastrana’s case, although Lent was domineering and controlling, the couple did have a child together. Lent later married Marie Bartel, who shared Pastrana’s condition, and they too toured. The pair settled in St Petersburg around 1880 before Lent became mad, dying in 1884. Bartel however remarried and toured with the bodies of Julia and Julia’s son, becoming an impresario in her own right.

Tangled passions also characterise Suzan-Lori Parks’ superb 1996 play Venus, which the playwright calls “a tale of love.” Critic Karen Kornweibel notes that the audience sees how Venus’ subject, Saartjie Baartman, was “singularly ‘unloved’” by history (South Atlantic Review Vol 74, 3, 2009). In the play The Venus Hottentot, as Baartman was publicly known, is constantly crying out for recognition—to be loved, to be touched and, in the last line of the play, to be kissed.” The attentions she receives however do constitute a kind of love, inadequate as it may be.

A Perfect Specimen A Perfect Specimen
photo Daniel James Grant

Adriane Daff embodies well the slight, high-voiced woman who comes to occupy both the centre and the margins of the play’s narrative. Pastrana does little other than tragically endure her lot, intermittently protesting to Lent and imploring him to spend the night with her again—which he refuses. Pastrana’s otherness is initially signalled by a veil and beautiful embroidered costume, ironically allying her with the famous “Circassian beauties” exhibited throughout the 1860s. The Circassians supposedly represented a remnant of the original white race which was said to have come out of the Caucasus. The veil here however is soon removed, highlighting how in all other respects Pastrana was graceful and ordinary. Nevertheless, the lack of a visual signifier in director Stuart Halusz’s staging, unlike the comically enlarged buttocks with which Parks’ Venus is usually equipped, renders Pastrana if anything too ordinary. But Pastrana is not the freak on display: rather it is Lent.

The play alternates between scenes in which Lent (Luke Hewitt) encounters various moral and philosophical interjectors: his wife, a small town Russian doctor (Igor Sas), his trapezist lover Marian Trumbull (Rebecca Davis) and business partner Cornell Wurlitzer (Greg McNeill). In between, Lent delivers bleak monologues. Lit from above in dark blue, heavy draped curtains of the show-tent behind him, he stands centre-stage like someone about to be drawn into an infernal pit below. His deeply resonant, basso-profundo voice and heavily marked out bags beneath his eyes, give these interludes the sense of dark truth-telling by a man who has seen his share of evil. Lent describes the horrible, aberrant appearance of his wife and her mummified remains, and how this may instruct us as to the cruelty of evolution and of God.

The slightly static staging and dialectal mode of the intervening scenes means that much of the dramaturgical force resides in vocalisation. Hewitt’s gravelly growl partners well with Greg McNeill’s heavily accented, lilting delivery in his portrayal of Wurlitzer. While Wurlitzer will only scrabble so far in the professional showman game, Lent transcends his own limits. The back and forth between Lent as carnie promoter and his more ambiguous demeanour in the dialogue scenes keeps alive the possibility that he might not believe the words he recites or the role he plays; that he might truly love his “beastly” wife. The play effectively, if perhaps predictably, charts his apparent loss of compassion.

The play closes with a meeting between Wurlitzer, now in charge of his own troupe, and the Russian doctor. Wurlitzer relates Lent’s fate, but has no time to converse further. A snowstorm threatens, and these characters too disappear into the chilly whiteness of the past. It is a slightly trite but nevertheless visually superb tableau on which to end Moncrieff’s modern-day morality tale.

A Perfect Specimen A Perfect Specimen
photo Daniel James Grant

Black Swan State Theatre Company: A Perfect Specimen, writer Nathaniel Moncrieff, director Stuart Halusz, performers Adriane Daff, Luke Hewitt, Greg McNeill, Igor Sas, Rebecca Davis, set design Frances Danckert, lighting Joe Lui, sound Brett Smith, costumes Lynn Ferguson; Studio Underground, WA State Theatre Centre, Perth, 30 Jun-17 July

RealTime issue #134 Aug-Sept 2016 pg.

© Jonathan Marshall; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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