Audience feels Merrick’s pain in ‘The Elephant Man’
WATERTOWN — The New Repertory Theatre — aka The House That Rick (Lombardo) Built — has begun its 30th season, now housed in the beautiful confines of the Arsenal Center for the Arts.
The New Rep, now helmed by artistic director Jim Petosa, has opened with “The Elephant Man,” Bernard Pomerance’s Tony Award-winning 1977 drama based on the short, sad life of the horribly disfigured Joseph Carey Merrick, usually called John Merrick.
The play is unlike David Lynch’s 1980 film “The Elephant Man,” where actor John Hurt used extensive makeup and prosthetics to portray Merrick. On stage, Merrick’s horrific disfiguration is described in graphic detail at the outset, but the actor portrays Merrick without the makeup and prosthetics; his disfigurement is suggested and left to the imagination of the theater-goer and the skill of the actor.
That doesn’t make it any easier for the actor playing Merrick. That means it’s a grueling performance by Tim Spears, who must suggest the tortured existence of the man with facial expressions, his halting gait, literally twisting his body this way and that for every second he is on the stage, and it’s almost painful to watch. But that’s just the point; it should be painful and it should covey that pain to us.
I was not a huge fan of Spears as Mozart in last season’s “Amadeus,“ but here Director Jim Petosa has garnered a fine performance from not only Spears, but an excellent ensemble cast.
As the play opens in 1884 in Victorian England, Merrick is being displayed as a freak, part of a sideshow, a less than human existence. He must be hooded in public. Ross (Joel Colodner) is the owner of the freak show who both “befriends” him, and later robs and deserts him.
Ross’s pitch to pay tuppence and see “The Elephant Man” catches the eye of up-and-coming surgeon Dr. Frederick Treves (Michael Kaye), who decides the good and Christian thing to do is to take Merrick away and examine him, and explore whether he might be helped at the renowned London Hospital.
He lectures his fellow medical professionals and displays Merrick, and many turn away in revulsion. There is nothing he and the hospital can do to improve his condition and soon Merrick is again left to his own devices.
Ross and Merrick make a disastrous trip to Brussels, where Merrick is banned from public display, and Ross sends him back to London, where Treves helps rescue Merrick from a howling mob, and brings him back to the hospital to live.
Russell Garrett is Carr Gomm, the hospital administrator who sees in Merrick a chance to for Londoners to open their hearts — and pocketbooks — and put the already world-famous London Hospital on firm financial footing for years to come.
I have come to appreciate the consistent excellence of Joel Colodner, here in several roles, including Ross and Bishop Walsham How, who attends to the spiritual needs of Merrick.
Even the refuge of the hospital doesn’t prevent Merrick from being gawked at, of course.
And while Treves and the many who come to visit Merrick provide satisfaction for his soul, at his core, he is still a man and craves the kind of human interaction and contact that only someone such as the noted actress Madge Kendal (Valerie Leonard) can provide.
The shadowy, underplayed lighting of Daniel MacLean Wagner was most effective (even if it meant taking notes was harder!), as were the lovely, haunting oboe solos performed by Louis Toth, which also added greatly to the tone and atmosphere.
The irony, of course, was that during the last years of his life spent in the London Hospital, was that Merrick was still on display, but only to a better class of people.
See the horribly disfigured human, read, write, and discuss important issues with the best and brightest in British society! See him build his model of St. Phillip’s Church with his one good hand! Only tuppence! Right this way!
“The Elephant Man” explores our attitudes, how we regard and care for the least among us, and reminds us that when it comes to health care for all, the metric to which we as a society should subscribe going forward should be a high one.
The New Repertory Theatre production of Bernard Pomerance’s “The Elephant Man,” through Sept. 29 at the Mosesian Theatre at the Arsenal Center for the Arts. Directed by Jim Petosa. Scenic design by Jon Savage. Lighting by Daniel MacLean Wagner. Costume design by Molly Trainor. Sound design by David Reiffel. www.newrep.org.