THEMES of beauty and greed are woven together in the world premier of Perth-born playwright Nathaniel Moncrieff’s A Perfect Specimen at the State Theatre.
It’s the true story of Julia Pastrana, who was born covered in thick black hair, due to hypertrichosis.
Tragically deformed by a secondary disease — gingival hyperplasia — which caused a protruding jaw, she was exhibited as half-human, half-animal in the dying days of the freak shows.
The Mexican born Pastrana had audiences flocking in the US, Europe and Russia, where she was billed as the “ape woman” and “the nondescript” by her husband/manager Theodore Lent.
With the stage draped in red velvet, A Perfect Specimen opens with Lent’s dramatic, and theatrical entreaty to “be amazed and horrified at such a creature”.
First-time director Stuart Halsz doesn’t present Pastrana (Adriane Daff) as the hideous monster the world sees, and there’s no attempt to disfigure Daff’s petite beauty.
“[The play] is really an exploration of deep beauty within…and how we relate that to commerce and exploitation of women,” he told the Voice as rehearsals got underway
back in May.
“It was happening in the late 1800s and we are airbrushing models today.”
Pastrana spoke three languages and was an excellent singer and graceful dancer – characteristics her husband exploited while cruelly declaring her a hideous, grotesque monster.
He finds her repulsive, but when he gets her pregnant, is joyously happy to be getting two freaks for the the price of one.
Daff’s portrayal of Pastrana is waif-like and pitiful, her longing to be a “normal” woman, and for a normal child, palpable.
Luke Hewitt brings a complexity to Lent, presenting a character remorseful, yet so driven by greed he was prepared to have his wife and son’s bodies stuffed after their deaths so as to continue exhibiting and exploiting them.
Lent cheats on his wife with lithesome acrobat Marian Trumbull, played by Rebecca Davis, who in turn is cheating on her husband.
Davis is initially seductive then cloying as Lent’s horror at the lengths he’s prepared to go to in exploiting his wife and child, begin to cloud his mind and he rejects her advances.
Be prepared to be horrified, not at the ugliness of the “ape women”, but the depravity people are prepared to accept in pursuit of money.
A Perfect Specimen is on at the State Theatre until July 17.
by JENNY D’ANGER