BWW Reviews: Studio Theatre of Bath Mpounts Thoughtful, Poignant Elephant Man
The play, well known from its London and New York runs and subsequent film and television versions, fares surprisingly well when returned to its roots in a small venue -(the New York premiere was at the York Theatre in St. Peter's Church) - and to a gritty, old-fashioned ambiance. Using the black box Curtis Room of Bath's Chocolate Church Arts Center, the company creates the dingy, often repressive world of late Victorian London, a world caught in the throes of ideological struggle between science and faith, Darwinism and Christian morality. Pomerance raises serious questions about the existence of a Creator, who would permit such overwhelming suffering, and without offering the consolation of an answer, he is still able to have his tragic hero, John Merrick, affirm that "the mind is the standard of the man."
John Willey directs with empathy and clarity, though one might wish for a slightly crisper pace, especially at the transitions. His blocking of the sizeable cast is fluid, and he skillfully makes use of the set to suggest the various London locales. Wisely, he has eschewed any British accents, a choice that makes better sense than attempting them unevenly.
The décor by Willey with Clay Hawks, Wayne Otto, and Melanie Willey, consists of simple wooden furniture and old church window panels as a backdrop, as well as an artfully painted facsimile of the show's original Elephant Man curtain. The lighting by Ellie Hawks and Wayne Otto does the best it can with the venue's limited resources, opting for a shadowy gloom, punctuated by single, scene-designating spots. The fade-outs at the numerous scene changes are slow - likely a technical limitation - adding that extra beat that sometimes robs the moment of its dramatic impact.
The costumes by Anne Scarponi make inventive use of thrift shop vintage, and with the exception of the plebian attire for Princess Alexandra and the Duchess, they work extremely well in their simplicity.
The cast functions well as an ensemble, making quick costume and role changes while remaining onstage for almost the entire drama. Ricardo Zarate, Jr. gives a brave and original performance as the Elephant Man, John Merrick. As in the original production, he is asked to convey both the character's deformity and dignity through physicality and speech patterns alone. This he does with an unerring simplicity of gesture and movement and a plainspoken diction that has just the right hint of ironic naiveté.
Kevin Gerber as Frederick Treves captures the solid stuffiness and basic decency of the character, and he often provides glimpses of the doctor's crisis of faith as the play progresses, but he needs more sublimated fire. Jacquelyn Mansfield is an elegant, worldly-wise Mrs. Kendal - witty, compassionate, and graceful in speech and bearing. Her scene where she undresses for Merrick has a touching purity.
Clay Hawks is a believably pragmatic hospital administrator Car Gomm, and Henrik Strandskov makes a manipulative and pathetic Ross. Pat Scully endows Bishop How with a gentle, but misguided sanctimoniousness, and he makes an admirable foil to Treves and Gomm.
Among the other players who perform multiple roles, Elisa Hawks, Tracy Kopocius, Melanie Willy and Sararose Willey make eerie Pinheads; Jacquelyn Perfetto has a strong scene as Nurse Sandwich; Ben Proctor brings an imposing presence to his trio of roles, and Johnmarcus Willey as the Whitehall urchin imparts authority to his mute part.
Justin Boone is the cellist, who hauntingly plays the melancholy score.
It is a pleasure to see Maine's regional companies' commitment to revive serious plays as well as lighter comedies and equally satisfying to witness the audience embrace these endeavors!
The Elephant Man runs until February 16, 2014, at The Curtis Room of the Chocolate Church, 804 Washington Street, Bath, ME. Information at www.studiotheatreofbath.com.
Photo Courtesy of the Studio Theatre of Bath