A tornado conjured from scraps of paper fanned with a piece of stiff paper, a minature cow twirling on a stick, light projected through old-school photographic negative plates—such are the simple, powerful effects accomplished by Dan Hurlin in his new puppetry piece presented at the Clarice Smith Center. This time his subject is a reclusive, perhaps eccentric small-town portrait photographer: Mike Disfarmer, who worked in the Ozarks burg of Heber Springs, Ark. from the 1930s until his death in obscurity in 1959. Focusing on the obsessive, solitary life of Disfarmer, the piece has only one puppet character, that of the photographer himself. As conceived by Hurlin, Disfarmer begins as a three-foot bespectacled figure (imagine an elongated Bunsen Honeydew); as his days unwind (as well as the mid-century small-town way of life), smaller and smaller puppets take its place, until the touching final tableau in which a twelve-inch Disfarmer clambers under his photographer’s cloth for the last time.

As with his other pieces, Hurlin puts his own spin on the Japanese bunraku tradition of puppetry. His five performers (along with Hurlin as narrator and voice for Disfarmer’s unspoken thoughts) both manipulate and interact with the puppet. The mix of scales works out because most of the scenes take place on waist-high wagons. Designers and builders for human performance would envy Hurlin’s freedom to position set pieces without the need for chocks, since his artificial actor isn’t in danger of skidding away or breaking through the set. Hurlin compares puppetry to dance, and indeed his performers often contribute to the story by the simple stillness of a standing pose.

Other technical theater elements contribute to this rewarding piece. Music by Dan Moses Schreier accompanies a projected montage of Disfarmer’s portraits. As the images corrode and fade away (as all emulsion-based photos must), the music becomes a demented, polyphonic bluegrass, to be eventually overwhelmed by sirens blasting from speakers scattered throughout the auditorium. The effect is an uncanny echo of Hurlin’s Hiroshima Maiden, which takes place in an overlapping time period. In a stately passage, lights designed by Tyler Micoleau evoke an evening’s twilight that takes 30 years to fall into night.

This bittersweet production is not without lightness: there’s a good running gag of Disfarmer bopping his head on his own studio safe light. Some of the names of Heber Springs’ denizens are too good to be made up (Carthel?).

  • Disfarmer, conceived, directed, and designed by Dan Hurlin, Smith Center Kay Theatre, College Park, Maryland