Chris M. Green and Matt Acheson in Disfarmer
(© Richard Termine)
Chris M. Green and Matt Acheson in Disfarmer
(© Richard Termine)
A tornado blows through a small town, sending cars, trees, and barnyard animals flying through the air. This early image within Dan Hurlin's beautifully evocative puppet-theater piece Disfarmer, now at St. Ann's Warehouse, sets the stage for a fascinating meditation on a lonely man who becomes increasingly paranoid and withdrawn.

The piece -- which features text by Sally Oswald -- is inspired by the life and works of Mike Disfarmer, a portrait photographer in rural Arkansas during the early-mid 20th Century. He legally changed his original surname of Meyer, telling (and perhaps believing in) the story that the real Mike Meyer was swept away by a tornado as an infant, while he was deposited on the family's doorstep in his stead. Hurlin voices Disfarmer's thoughts from the back of the theater, while five puppeteers (Matt Acheson, Chris M. Green, Tom Lee, Darius Mannino, and Eric Wright) manipulate puppet versions of the man and the environments he interacts with.

The performance doesn't attempt a straightforward biography of its subject, instead presenting a dream-like exploration of what his state of mind may have been like to come up with such a bizarre creation myth for himself. Tornadoes are a reoccurring theme within the piece, images of which are presented in an inventive variety of ways. Disfarmer's drinking habit is also emphasized, as we constantly see him consuming alcohol, while bottles accumulate all over his home and work space. The impression given is of a bleak life, punctuated by fear and reclusiveness.

One of the advantages of working with puppets is that it makes set changes and special effects easier to realize. Six rolling platforms become the stages for numerous environments, which Hurlin has crafted with an uncanny attention to detail, and which are further enhanced by Anna Thomford's costumes and soft furnishings. By using different sizes of puppets, the piece is also able to demonstrate the way in which Disfarmer felt himself to be diminishing over time.

Moreover, the ensemble of puppeteers (who are credited with creating the piece) handle each object in a loving and deliberate manner. They achieve life-like expressiveness in their manipulation of the various puppets, right down to simulating breathing while Disfarmer sleeps. Occasionally, they even take on different roles within the show, serving as shop keepers, neighbors, and the photography studio's clientele.

In addition, the cast produce the live Foley sound effects, designed by Dan Moses Schreier, who also composed the show's often haunting score, which is performed live by a musical trio. Tyler Micoleau's lighting and a film sequence by David Soll that incorporates many of the real-life Disfarmer's photographs also make significant contributions to this overall excellent production.