Reclusive portrait photographer Mike Disfarmer (1917-1956) believed he was a foundling dropped on his parents' property by a tornado, and as an adult he legally changed his name from Meyer to Disfarmer to disassociate himself from his small-town Arkansas milieu. ("Meier" is a German word for dairy farmer; adding the prefix "dis" was intended to establish what he was not.) Using glass plate photography long after it was obsolete, Disfarmer's work spans the Dust Bowl days to the post-War era. Unrecognized until years after his death, in the 1970s thousands of his negatives were purchased and publicized by an editor at The Arkansas Sun, and the portraits were eventually acclaimed for their arresting clarity and revealing simplicity.
Disfarmer's life and work have now inspired a bewitching puppet-theater piece at St. Ann's Warehouse (through February 8th) created by Dan Hurlin (Hiroshima Maiden). Performed with a single Bunraku-style puppet, about three feet tall, with a live score by Dan Moses Schreier for banjo, accordion and fiddle, the 80 minute show traces the mysterious outlines of Disfarmer's last days on earth—drinking beer, writing a disturbing letter to his foster nephew, and stopping by the grocery for his ritual resetting of the store's barometer.
But to summarize the incidents in Sally Oswald's text is to miss the point; as she explains in a note, Hurlin hired her "to not write a play." The "story" told in Disfarmer is evocative, not narrative—the life of this enigmatic hermit is communicated viscerally, through an immersive sound design that slides between fake old radio broadcasts and Hurlin's intimate narration, through the impeccably detailed settings, through the elegant manipulation of the sad, isolated puppet by five angelic handlers. You can see them controlling the little wooden Disfarmer, yet he seems quite alive and endowed with his own dreary spirit.
What Disfarmer lacks in dramatic propulsion, it makes up for with aesthetic virtuosity and a leavening streak of slapstick comedy. By the end, as the faces from Disfarmer's photographs briefly flash on the upstage scrim, we're left with the haunting reminder that most of his subjects are already dead, just as we'll soon be, and the aroma of Depression-era poverty wafting from their clothes is redolent not just of the past, but (gulp) the future, too.