A tornado may have blown Dorothy to the glittering land of Oz, but in Dan Hurlin’s biographical puppet play Disfarmer, a twister deposits our infant hero at a much more pedestrian address. According to court documents, Mike Meyer “claimed that as a small child, he was kidnapped by a tornado: ripped from his birth parents, flying nine miles clear across the state of Indiana till he landed in a heap at the Meyer family home.” Meyer had no love for his adopted farming community, so he petitioned to change his name to Mike Disfarmer, the “dis-” prefix signaling his alienation and contempt.
In the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, Disfarmer worked as a portrait photographer in Heber Springs, Arkansas. More recently, his rediscovered prints and negatives have earned him gallery shows, catalog essays, and considerable posthumous fame. Hurlin, enthralled by Disfarmer’s photographs, wondered how such an unpleasant and eccentric man could compel such candid images. Hurlin built several Bunraku-style puppets of Disfarmer—bald, bespectacled, and diminishing in size like so many matryoshka dolls—and commissioned playwright Sally Oswald to write a script drawn from Disfarmer’s letters and her own imaginings.
Structurally, Disfarmer resembles another piece about an outsider artist: Ridge Theater’s Jennie Richee, the biographical play about Henry Darger that also debuted at St. Ann’s. That play, too, contrasted rich images with a spare, elliptical script. But whereas Jennie Richee was continually involving, if sometimes frustratingly hazy, Disfarmer soon dissipates audience interest, and Oswald’s script lacks the coarse lyricism of Mac Wellman’s. The set is gorgeous, the staging clever, and the lobby’s display of 13 Disfarmer prints—each luminous and enigmatic—conjures ample goodwill. But the show trudges along at a pre-industrial drag, and the repetitive scenes of Disfarmer waking, sleeping, shuffling to work, and buying beer and chocolate ice cream seem unproductively endless. Even the occasional tornado does surprisingly little to vary the pace and tone. Though the initial moments held me rapt, I quite agreed with my date, who, upon leaving the theater, remarked, “Well, that was dis-interesting.”