BWW Review: Zao Theatre Presents THE ELEPHANT MAN

BWW Review: Zao Theatre Presents THE ELEPHANT MAN

Two compelling figures dominate the stage in Zao Theatre's poignant and soulful production of Bernard Pomerance's Tony award winning THE ELEPHANT MAN. Kellen Garner delivers a riveting and intensely human portrayal of John Merrick, the severely disfigured foil of Victorian-era freak shows. Tyler Boettcher is perfectly staid and formal in demeanor as Frederick Treves, the up-and-coming physician who rescues Merrick from his hell-on-earth and offers him life-long sanctuary in Whitechapel's London Hospital. Patient and doctor are two sides of the human coin. One whose external features obscure an inner treasure of wit, intelligence, and spirit. The other whose refined appearance, propriety ("Rules make us happy because they are for our own good."), rationalism and self-confidence belie an emerging crisis of doubt and conscience.

These finely polished performances, guided by the deft and divine direction of Michael (Mickey) Bryce (the senior pastor at Zao's home, Centerstage Church), provide context for a series of scenes that prompt contemplation about the essence of humanity, societal hypocrisy, faith and reason. Merrick, possessed of both an inquiring mind and striking naivete, poses questions about God and faith that try Treves' deepest convictions. Consider this penetrating and irony-laden observation by Merrick during a conversation about Creation and his condition: Had God used both hands to create illusions of man, Merrick would have been whole.

As Merrick undergoes an awakening and reveals his unique attributes of intellect and wit, he becomes a cause célèbre and object of fascination among Victorian nobility ~ an oddity who, albeit deformed, is a man of letters, a poet, and a frequent theatre goer. The universe gravitates to him, and a parade of curious admirers seeks his audience.

Among the visitors is Madge Kendal, a famous English actress, who is charmed by Merrick's novel interpretation of Romeo and Juliet, and befriends him. Their subsequent exchanges are revelatory in more ways than one. Diane Senffner (who has managed as well to serve as dialect coach to her fellow cast members) delivers a splendid and sublime portrayal of Mrs. Kendal that serves further to expose Merrick's brilliance.

Add to these smart and finely calibrated performances those of Kevin Tye, who is terrific and full-on realistic as Ross, the freak show barker who terrorizes the elephant man; Joe Musil as the pragmatic hospital chair who generates the funds to subsidize Merrick's stay; Clayton Marlowe as the Bishop who sees in Merrick "the true Christian."

Bryce has assembled a sterling cast that, as an ensemble, gives glory to the play. He enriches the production with keen stagecraft. Wide screens flank the stage, projecting images that complement his minimalist set. It is, all in all, a remarkable and moving experience.

In a Season that has already been honored with nine ariZoni nominations, Zao Theatre's presentation of THE ELEPHANT MAN adds sweet icing to the cake.

THE ELEPHANT MAN runs through September 8th at Zao Theatre in Apache Junction, AZ.

Photo credit to Sarah Rodgers

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From This Author Herbert Paine

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