Review: A Perfect Specimen
Presenter: Black Swan State Theatre Company
By Rhys Tarling
Ugliness is oppositional to beauty, but both concepts share a key similarity: anybody who embodies these traits provoke fascination, making them ripe for exploitation and desecration.
Julia Pastrana, the ape-woman who is paraded around for the world to gasp at by her calculating and business-savvy husband, is textually described as hairy and freakish. Yet the actress who plays Julia Pastrana is presented to the audience without the slightest sign of make-up that indicates deformity (though Adriane Daff gives such a rich, vivid performance that you never doubt or question what she is feeling and doing in any given scene).
She is her normal and beautiful self playing a person who is the object of revulsion. It’s fascinating. Is writer Nathaniel Moncrieff and director Stuart Halusz slyly comparing us — who are there to devour charismatic and gorgeous people who mimic the extreme aspects of the human condition — to an imagined carnival audience who would gawk and jeer at an ape-woman? Perhaps there’s a practical reasoning to this: the hideous make-up would blunt the audience’s ability to empathise with the plight of this kind and sad woman.
Either way, it’s an ingeniously damning indictment on us.
Theodore Lent, Julia’s husband and manager, a guy who is almost engineered to be a villain to boo and hiss at, is brought to life with an astonishingly humane performance by Luke Hewitt.
Looking like a sad clown from a Tim Burton film and ready to mutilate someone’s life and dignity for the promise of money, Luke Hewitt plays him as a guy who is melancholically resigned to the fact that he is correct to assume that exploiting the worst of human nature will fill his coffers.
There is a key moment in the play where Julia reveals to Theodore that she is with his child. She begs him to pray to god that the child will be more like him instead of her. He prays, “may the child have the same flesh as me”. He’s keenly aware that his unmarred flesh is the extent of his goodness. You can’t help but feel sympathy for this portly, complicated man, which makes it all the more disheartening when it’s revealed that his capacity for depravity is probably limitless.
The staging and lighting were immaculately executed. Most striking was when the circular stages were used to juxtapose Julia’s grace and Theodore’s baseness – it was such a creative and visually beautiful way to illustrate the old “who is the real monster, here?” theme.
It wasn’t just that it was pleasing to the eye that made it standout, it was a boldness of the artistic declaration – “this is what we can do that cinema and novels can’t”.
The lighting gently complements the grave and wintry atmosphere of the play. The red garishness is cranked to 11 to evoke a carnival of hell with a thunderously theatrical Theodore right at the centre of it, who is presenting his wife to an audience who are pumped and ready to laugh, gasp, and jeer at his freakish wife.
Of course there is no audience, no fake mass horde who exist for us to cathartically wag our finger at and think “well, I’d never treat the poor dear like that.” Theodore Lent is only presenting to the good people who paid to see A Perfect Specimen. Us.
A Perfect Specimen will be on until July 17.
For ticket info click here.