Monday, 9 November 1998

Dark: The Adventures of Diane Arbus, Nov 9, 1998

 by Gerald Lepkowski
Universal Theatre II from October 14, 1998
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Diane Arbus should be discovered at the age of 20. Her photographs are essential stimulus during that brooding, philosophical period when drugs and suicide seem exotic, freaks compelling and one is young enough to look artistic rather than deadbeat crouching in the gutter.

Gerald Lepkowski was so riveted by this American photographer's representations of the underbelly of the New York population that he wrote a play based on Arbus' life and work. Dark began its life on stage in Perth then developed into a play for Radio National. One wonders how the work of a visual artist could be portrayed with only sound.

This third incarnation has the textual tone of radio but is enhanced by the addition of projected photographic images. These are not from Arbus' collection (her estate is tetchy about use of her images), but by local photographer, Ilana Rose whose photos of people from the "Underbelly" of society resonate with those of Arbus and are also exhibited in the foyer.

Lepkowski has compressed Diane's (Nell Feeney) life after her divorce from her husband. She is attracted by difference and depredation: hermaphrodites, the intellectually disabled, deformed, the freakish. In one distressing and silent scene she stares obsessively at a man's facial birthmark, awaiting his tacit approval for her to photograph him.

Her images appear in magazines, exhibitions and finally in a book and were considered offensive, repulsive, peculiar but compelling. Norman Mailer said,"Giving Diane Arbus a camera is like giving a baby a hand grenade." Given her own depressive and dysfunctional personality, it appears that she contemplates her own internal deformities through the reflection of her "freaks".

Feeney captures the compulsion of Arbus and portrays her vulnerability in a face that looks like a broken heart. An ensemble of four (Mandy McElhinney, Peter Roberts, Louise Siversen and Lepskowski) supports her superbly, and people the stage with Arbus' associates and subjects.

Special mention must be made of Siversen's numerous marvellous cameos, which range from a bag lady to Germaine Greer, and of McElhinney's extraordinarily accurate portrayal of a disabled child.

Arbus may have vowed that she always took photos with the subjects' permission but her work was invasive and manipulative in spite of this. She was an artist. Her work was for herself not for the greater glory of humanity. In the end she was the greatest freak.

by Kate Herbert

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