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Review: Paul Potenza Will Break Your Heart as THE ELEPHANT MAN at The Tampa Repertory Theatre

It Runs Thru February 19th!

Review: Paul Potenza Will Break Your Heart as THE ELEPHANT MAN at The Tampa Repertory Theatre

Sometimes a show comes along that is so powerful, at times shattering, with a top-flight cast, that it deserves two Broadway World reviews. Tampa Rep's production of THE ELEPHANT MAN certainly fits into that category. My BWW colleague, Drew Eberhard, saw the show at its final preview, and I had the honor of attending its opening weekend. At the play's center is a performance by Paul Potenza in the title role that should have anyone reading this sentence to stop what they're doing and obtain their tickets ASAP. THE ELEPHANT MAN runs at the HCC Studio Theater in Ybor City thru February 19th, so you better hurry.

Although it was long thought that the deformities of John Merrick, a.k.a. The Elephant Man, the ones the led him into main attractions at freak shows, were caused from a severe case of neurofibromatosis; it has also been claimed that it is Proteus Syndrome, which is very rare. His head, according to the surgeon Dr. Treves, is "the circumference about that of a man's waist." His knotted, crooked skeleton is now at home at the Royal London Hospital and, for you tabloid hounds, never was it in Michael Jackson's possession. (The singer wanted it, but his bid was rejected; still, you get to see the Elephant Man's claymated bones bust a move in Jackson's cringy "Leave Me Alone" video.)

If you look at images taken in the 1880s of the real Merrick, you immediately recognize that he actually does not look like an elephant. In some ways, in these photos from 140 years ago, many of them effectively projected onto a backdrop during the show, he resembles a weird synthesis of a rhino and The Thing from the Fantastic Four donning a suit and tie. If you've watched David Lynch's 1980 Oscar-nominated Elephant Man (not based on this play), John Hurt's Merrick prosthetics certainly look close to the real thing, but you never concede that it's anything other than clever cosmetics.

One of the great things about Bernard Pomerance's play, THE ELEPHANT MAN, is that we don't have to worry if the prosthetics work or how John Merrick's deformities will literally appear. The actor playing the part dons no make-up, no mask, and no prosthetics at all. Through the actor's tilted mouth, gnarled right hand, sluggish, wavering physical movements and deliberate, slow speech, the audience suspends its disbelief and immediately thinks that they're in the presence of the real Mr. Merrick.

And that's where the great Paul Potenza comes in. If you can critique Mr. Potenza of anything, it's that he doesn't appear in enough shows in our area. His sublime work in Jobsite's Annapurna in 2015 still may be the finest performance of the 2010s that I had experienced (and I had seen almost a thousand over the decade, reviewing many of them). That was eight years ago and, still, his work hauntingly stays with me. And now his John Merrick may do the same thing in the 2020s--a performance that can easily overshoot but doesn't, that highlights the character's sensitivities and kindness, that doesn't contain one misstep, that dares not seemed forced or overdone, and that earns the character's sympathy and dignity. It's been forty-two years since I first saw THE ELEPHANT MAN onstage, but no actor can compare to Mr. Potenza as the deformed John Merrick.

Mr. Potenza's Merrick has a sense of humor, a high intelligence, and all he wants is to be like others. But his physique and facial deformities--his appearance causes people to either gawk or scream--make that impossible. "My head is so big," he says, "because it's so full of dreams." There is such a quiet dignity to him, and Potenza's voice, that of the struggling Merrick, underscores so much hidden passion, so much love, sometimes spoken at a church-like whisper. Do we feel sorry him? Yes, there is some of that. We pity him early on, when he's paraded around, the star of a freakshow. But then when he is "rescued" by Dr. Treves and becomes the toast of the elite, especially his closeness and connection with the actress Ms. Kendal, we revel in his joy. He builds a model cathedral, using only one hand, and even though his condition worsens, he is cared for and no longer ridiculed. He has so much humanity, so his being called an "elephant man" underscores the cruelty of labels; rising above his affliction, he's more human, with so much love and kindness to offer the world, than most people we know.

Watch and marvel as Mr. Potenza creates this gentle soul trapped in the prison of disfigurement. It's an exquisite performance, astonishing and transcendent. And looking back on it, you don't shake your head in sadness at the tragedy of his young life or frown in sympathy at his situation; you smile at his kindness, his big heart that was able to be unleashed for a few short years. This is not a pity party we're witnessing; this is a celebration of the human spirit.

At one point in the show, we are treated to a sort of Bizarro Merrick, where Potenza acts as a sort of carnival barker medical expert in Dr. Treves' dream; this really showcases the actor's versatility. And in Mr. Merrick's final moment, the simple act of going to bed is done so effectively slowly, so movingly, that the audience is left breathless. From start to finish, Potenza chills, thrills and ultimately breaks your heart.

The other actors complement Mr. Potenza's bravura turn; this is a show where every actor steps up, an ensemble of the highest order.

As Dr. Treves, Christopher Marshall exudes a gentleness and his own form of kindness. Although it's Potenza's show, Mr. Marshall lets us glimpse his character's inner conflict--is he no better than the carnival barker parading Mr. Merrick around as part of a freak show, albeit one with a higher class of clientele? He's protective of his find, and it also breaks his heart as it does ours. And Mr. Marshall plays all of these emotions splendidly.

As Mrs. Kendal, the actress who befriends John, Georgia Mallory Guy is exceptional. At first you wonder if the actress (Kendal) is pulling out all stops when first meeting Mr. Merrick, but then we watch as she melts in kindness responding to his kindness. You feel a true bond between these two, and their scenes together become the best and the sharpest of the show.

There is one scene in particular between Mr. Merrick and Ms. Kendal that is so keenly intimate, so quiet, gorgeously played by the two performers. You could hear a pin drop during it.

All of the side players up their game with this stellar group. Ami Sallee is marvelously strong as the no-nonsense Carr Gomm. Don Walker is good in a variety of roles, such as the Bishop who "brings salvation where none is" and as the freak show exhibitor, but I liked him best as the hospital worker who is canned for gleefully gawking at Mr. Merrick in a bathtub. Matthew Belopavlovich runs the gamut of emotions with such a variety of parts that also spotlights his versatility. Bridget Bean and Maya Quinones play Belgian pinheads, "Queens of the Congo," as child-like gigglers, in a no-holds-barred acting turn that's both entertaining and disturbing. And Ms. Bean gets one of the great one-off characters with Miss Sandwich, who promises she won't scream at the sight of Mr. Merrick (we know this won't end well).

Adding to the mood is the brilliant cellist, Rose Mallare, who plays just off house left. Her work doesn't overshadow the happenings in the intimate surroundings but underscores the action and brings the emotional content to another level.

Pomerance's script itself is quite good, going beyond the historic to include debates on science versus religion, lowly poverty versus entitled wealth. Still, any qualms I have with THE ELEPHANT MAN emerge from the award-winning script. So often key events are told to us--Mr. Merrick's memorization of Bible passages or his first venture to Dr. Treves' home--when we really want to see and hear them, especially as we connect more and more with him. (The Bible recitation in the Lynch film is much more powerful than here because we got to see it unfold, experience it, not told to us in hindsight.) And some scenes crackle more than others. The Kendal/Merrick scenes work best because both actors are at the top of their game and take their time; the other scenes are all quite good but don't quite reach that level of quiet grace and greatness as when these two characters (and obviously the actors inhabiting them) are onstage.

The show, directed winningly by Emilia Sargent, is beautifully paced at a rather rapid 100 minutes (but it never feels like a locomotive barreling through; it's a soft, tender show that moves at just the right speeds).

Jim Sorensen's projections of the real-life John Merrick, including a full-frontal nude photo of him, add much to the story and our understanding of the history of Merrick. Keith Eisenstadt's lighting is first-rate, smoothly transitioning from one scene to the other. Mary Kraack's costumes marvelously capture the 1880s. And Georgia Mallory Guy's sound design works wonders, even during the pre-show where we can hear horses' hooves and church bells in the distance, readying us for the experience at hand.

THE ELEPHANT MAN was a "passion project" for Tampa Rep's beloved founder, C. David Frankel, who passed away just before Covid hit in 2020. He may be gone three years now but his legacy of great theatre in the Tampa area still thrives. And there's no doubt that he would be incredibly proud of this transformative production and of all of those involved.

THE ELEPHANT MAN, performed at the Studio Theatre in the HCC Ybor, runs through February 19th.

Photo Courtesy of Stage Photography of Tampa LLC-SPOT.

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