BWW Review: THE ELEPHANT MAN at UD REP Ensemble
In this supercharged political environment, we are buffeted with tweeted grotesqueries daily. We ask ourselves where is the humanity?
Perhaps Director Sandy Robbins was prescient when he selected THE ELEPHANT MAN to be in this UD REP's season. Perhaps Robbins saw that we needed a yuge dose of kindness, understanding and compassion.
This is a true story. John Merrick was born a physical freak, as grotesque as one can imagine. His mother died and his father gave him up. He was taken and made to'perform' in Victorian 'freak shows' and 'carnivals of oddities". He was gaped at and derided by those paying a schilling or tuppance. When his eventual savior, Dr. Treves, first laid eyes on him the good doctor called him "the most disgusting specimen of humanity that I had ever seen ... at no time had I met with such a degraded or perverted version of a human being as this lone figure displayed".
The initial scene, introducing the characters (save the main one), was staged in the style of Grand Guignol. To give us context and set the scene, Projection Designer Clint Allen showed real pictures of Merrick on a large scrim. This is jolting in itself.
Scenic Design by Linda Buchanan was spare. Yet the iron work was sufficient to take us to the back to early Victoriana. Interpretive and exquisite lighting design by Michael Lincoln made up for the lack of set pieces by squarely focusing our attention.
The drapes are opened to present Merrick (Michael Gotch). The authors of the play had mandated that no prosthetics would be used on the character. As a result, Gotch and the actors before him were charged to create their own sense of grotesque by contorting themselves in (what must be) painful postures. I certainly do not mean to demean any disability, but Gotch speaks as one might envision one with Parkinson's; twitching head, wide mouth, curled lips, wrenching the heart of the audience as he attempts to bring anguished voice to his thoughts. Gotch is totally believable in his physicality, his language and his pathos. We see past Merrick's physical impairments into his great humanity.
All Rep Ensemble players save for Gotch and Dr. Frederick Treves, (Mic Matarese) play several roles. We see Treves evolve from this self-styled, self-important sanctity of a successful surgeon to a man of empathy and compassion for Merrick. Matarese has a strong voice and powerful stage presence. His high-born English accent was perfect.
I know, I know, this is what actors do, but it is most surely was fun watching the remaining ensemble performing, to understate, quite diverse roles. Kathleen Pirkl Tague went from the elegant Princess Alexandra to a Pinhead in a freak show. (Note: if you wish to see what a real pinhead looks like, refer to Tod Browning's 1932 film FREAKS. Browning had previously directed DRACULA with Bela. His career never recovered from FREAKS, a truly bizarre film.)
Mrs. Kendal (Elizabeth Hefliin) gives the most passionate performance after Gotch. It was a 'moment' that theatre goers remember when Mrs. Kendal kisses Merrick's hand. Oh, the sensation of human touch. Merrick had been so deprived of the gentleness of human touch his entire life. So poignant. So beautiful. Yet, Heflin also donned the pinhead headdress.
A three-piece string ensemble of original music provided evocative music. Costuming by Martha Hally was inspiring. The Victorian bustles and bright textures were a sight to behold. Where Hally came up with the idea for the pinhead 'heads' must have come from a night of watching BLUE MAN GROUP sitting next to Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtain! Hysterical!
Through Mar 19. Rep.Udel.edu 831.2201
Next Up: TARTUFFE. April 20. Aisle Say's French gene says you do not want to miss this one. The opening show in The Thompson Theatre was Moliere's THE IMAGINARY INVALID. My oh my, Producing Artistic Director Sandy Robbins, bring that one back!