Travelling freakshows are relics of the past: events that would weave from town to town, amazing locals with their presentations of human nature’s anomolies. These days, we discover freak-value via the internet, but back in the day, freaks in flesh and blood was where it was at.
The Black Swan State Theatre Company’s A Perfect Specimen posits us into that time when the circus ring was the main platform to present audiences with marvels of the abnormal variety – and the production does so with the best of taste. Even one of its subtle messages – that beauty is in the eye of the beholder – is put across without patronising its cast of outcasts.
The central figure is Julia Pastrana, otherwise known as the ‘ape-woman’ due to her protruding jaw and hirsute face and body. This human curiosity is plucked from obscurity by calculating businessman, Theodore Lent (Luke Hewitt), and is quickly turned into the main attraction of his travelling show.
Whether Lent sees beauty behind the facial hair and ape-like jaw, or great big dollar signs, he opts to marry his main attraction and soon enough she falls pregnant, worried that her offspring will fall under the same aesthetic curse that she has.
But nothing is uglier than the show-trick Theodore delivers next: preserving the foetus of Julia’s dead unborn and putting it on display for people to pay to see. I won’t go on to describe his next shameless move, suffice to say that while the man clearly lacks scruples, audiences might just realise a message behind his meanness, that is, does he feel a certain human being, even the freakiest sort, is actually so handsome that it ought to be preserved to win the awe of others?
Because the Black Swan State Theatre Company’s production of this brilliant story by emerging writer Nathaniel Moncrieff is a world premiere, and considering it is the debut of BSSTC actor-come-director Stuart Halusz, it wouldn’t have surprised me to have witnessed teething problems on set on preview night. Instead, the show was presented from start to finish without a hitch – and that’s with a revolving stage involved and a constant changing of props.
Kudos to actor Rebecca Davis who plays two dichotomous roles, the first a seductive acrobat who is having an affair with the circus’ owner, the second as a cautious Russian midwife. Davis’ quick-switching from playful vixen to serious attendant is an impressive study for fledgling thespians and general audience members alike. Industry folk might be quick to point out that because Davis is married to the show’s director, this might have been reason for her scoring two key roles, but nay, her acting chops prove the real reason is because, put simply, she is very, very good.
The only thing about this production that might throw audience members into confusion is why the central character of Pastrana – played dutifully by Adriane Daff – is actually very beautiful, and that despite her physical abnormalities on paper and in the play’s poster, there’s not even a hair on her head out of place, let alone any sign of the hirsute on her face. The only sign of difference in her looks is given when she occasionally covers her face with a layer of fabric. Clearly then, it’s quality acting that again gets the message across, and besides, perhaps we are supposed to be seeing her as the ‘perfect specimen’ her flawed showbiz husband sees her as.
And that’s where the ‘beauty in the eye of the beholder’ aspect shines through most. Antonino Tati
‘A Perfect Specimen’ is on at Studio Underground, Heath Ledger Theatre, Perth until July 17. Tickets are available through www.bsstc.com.au.
Stage photography by Daniel James Grant.