A Perfect Specimen tells the true story of ‘the Ape Woman’ Julia Pastrana. Born with a ‘snout’ and covered in hair, Julia (Adriane Daff) is the star attraction of Theodore Lent’s travelling freak show. A ruthless profiteer, Theodore (Luke Hewitt) also happens to be her husband.
Presented by the Black Swan State Theatre Company, this world premiere is darkly captivating. It follows Julia and Theodore’s tumultuous marriage as he leads the freak show through a Russian winter in the 19th century. Whilst Julia dreams of a peaceful life away from the cruelty of the audience, Theodore cannot let go of the riches her spectacle brings him. When Julia falls pregnant, she prays for her child to be free from her affliction, whilst Theodore only sees the potential for another star attraction.
In one word, A Perfect Specimen could be best described as ‘intriguing’. Specifically, Theodore’s motives are endlessly intriguing. As both Julia’s husband and her manager, it is obvious from the outset their relationship is exploitative. Yet it is unclear whether or not he harbours sincere love and affection for her, or for their child. At times it seems he truly cares for her – oscillating between romantic and fatherly – but then he turns and acts in such a way that cannot possibly be compatible with any sort of genuine love.
It was wonderful to question if Theodore could be forgiven for heralding his wife as ‘half-man, half-beast’ to a paying audience. It was highly enjoyable to try and decipher whether this was truly just theatrical puffery, or the only way he could vent his frustrations.
Theodore is portrayed beautifully by Hewitt. Though there are moments when his steely characterisation feels more like an unresponsive golem than a calculating businessman, it is a testament to his talent that he appears in almost every scene yet remains opaque.
Whilst the play is intriguing, it is not satisfying. In a few ways, I was left wanting more. A Perfect Specimen is very sad; even, in parts, truly chilling. However, I did not find its handling of Julia’s life amounts to something heart-wrenching or deeply touching.
There is a charm in the relative simplicity of the narrative and the small cast. However, it is said in storytelling that you should ‘show, not tell’. There is no portrayal of the inhumanity Julia suffers, nor the toll that it takes on her. As such, it made Julia’s accounts of cruelty feel hollow, impeding our ability to empathise with her. Adriane Daff’s charisma as a performer is a saving grace in this respect. It feels that the play rests on the inherent sadness of its subject matter, without truly giving the audience a sense of what it means to be told you “should not be alive”.
The tone of the play is also consistently sullen. There is little to no comic relief, and this can sometimes rob the darker moments of their gravity. Without this contrast, truly despicable instances of Theodore’s greed and callousness feel like a mere chain of unfortunate events.
What is superbly handled, however, is the exploration of what death can mean to an individual. Each character harbours a different relationship with the facets of death. Through the Russian midwife Valeria (Rebecca Davis), we are shown the way Russian culture understands death and regulates its response. For Julia’s doctor, Alyokhin (Igor Sas), the death of patients he failed to help haunts him. For Theodore’s business partner Cornell (Greg McNeill), the harm befalling children brings him great sadness. For the acrobat Marian (Rebecca Davis), the illusion of its risk in her performance can be milked for entertainment.
Theodore’s perspective on death is thought-provoking. Like Marian, he plays with its risk for shock value, but has a graver and more considered understanding. Like Alyokhin and Cornell, he sees death as a terrifying abyss. However, he is not afraid to stare straight into it. As each character divulged their perspective, it was fascinating to witness these parts of Theodore’s view piecing themselves together. Ultimately, his true perspective rears its head in a stunning and an almost stomach-turning moment, where it becomes clear that death will not be an obstacle to his own greed.
The production design is absolutely stellar. Frances Danckert’s set is a grand yet dusty spectacle; a stage almost rotting from within. The set truly looks as if it could be rolled up and taken by wagon off to the next town. A huge ‘curtain’ of black fringe gives glimpses of backstage action, and casts huge, ominous lines of shadow across the Studio Underground. A revolving stage is used to great effect, paired with eerie music to render the stage a kind of devilish music box.
Every scene is no less than visually captivating. There’s a wonderful tension between the vibrancy of the costumes/furniture and the haunting, sombre set. A simple bedroom scene is as beguiling as the grandeur of the freak show stage, or the force of a Russian blizzard. Much of the play looks like a moving painting.
A particularly interesting choice was the portrayal of Julia’s deformities. After the opening scenes describe the hideousness of this ‘creature’, I found myself genuinely dreading her inevitable introduction. Theodore slowly unwraps her headscarf, only to reveal an immaculate, youthful face. Perhaps this speaks to the purity and beauty of Julia’s soul beneath her appearance. Whatever the rationale, it was one of the play’s most surprising moments, and that’s saying something.
Words by Joshua Sanchez
A Perfect Specimen runs until 17 July at the State Theatre Centre’s Studio Underground. Tickets available here.