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Washington DC by Susan Berlin

The Elephant Man

Also see Susan's review of Caroline, or Change

The Elephant Man
Scott Fortier and Valerie Leonard
The production of Bernard Pomerance's The Elephant Man now at Olney Theatre Center fascinates the mind, but only engages the emotions on occasion. Director Jim Petosa previously staged the work at Olney in 1991 and for Washington's Catalyst Theatre Company in 2004; he is again working with Scott Fortier (John Merrick) and Valerie Leonard (Mrs. Kendal), both of whom were nominated for Helen Hayes Awards for their roles in the 2004 production.

The 1979 play uses the story of Merrick as a lens to examine the nature of conformity and "monstrousness" in society, both in Victorian England and more recently. Jon Savage has designed an abstract set that ingeniously plays up the nature of illusion and surface images, comprised of numerous shining black layers and sliding panels that can reveal, reflect, or obscure depending on Charlie Morrison's tightly focused lighting design.

Merrick was hideously deformed from childhood, with an enormous head, discolored skin hanging in folds from various parts of his body, and a useless right arm and hand. After scraping out a living in freak shows, he was taken in by Dr. Frederick Treves (here played by Christopher Lane), who gave him dignity, a home in the London Hospital, and introductions to prominent members of society including the royal family. Pomerance's play largely follows the process through the eyes of Treves, a Victorian gentleman with circumscribed views on propriety and civilized behavior.

Unlike the 1980 movie, the play depicts Merrick through physical contortions rather than heavy, disfiguring makeup. Fortier's performance is visceral, both figuratively and literally; he internalizes the character in his every motion, every painful twist of his body, the way he forces the words out of the side of his mouth. The viewer can easily see the effort, but it isn't a stunt. It's the way Merrick was forced to live.

As a fashionable actress who becomes Merrick's friend, Leonard provides the heartbeat of the production. She ably depicts the many levels of Mrs. Kendal's life: the artifice on the top, the genuine feelings underneath, and eventually a kind of love for Merrick. The play suffers in the last few scenes, after she makes her last exit.

Treves was a man in his thirties when he first encountered Merrick, and Lane manages to capture the boyishness, as well as the gravitas, of a doctor stumbling onto something that will make his career. His journey begins when he believes his needs consistently coincide with those of Merrick, and ends when he realizes that is not necessarily true.

The rest of the seven-member cast has its moments, especially James Konicek as Merrick's former exploiter (manager) and as a bishop, and Barbara Pinolini as a seemingly unflappable nurse and the august Princess Alexandra.

An additional component of this production is the presence of oboist Martha Goldstein, performing incidental music from a corner of the set. The melancholy tone of the oboe matches the sense of the drama, and adds depth.

Olney Theatre Center
The Elephant Man
May 25th June 18th
By Bernard Pomerance
Pinhead Manager, London Policeman, Porter, Lord John: John Dow
John Merrick: Scott Fortier
Ross, Bishop Walsham How, Shork, James Konicek
Frederick Treves, Belgian Policeman: Christopher Lane
Pinhead, Mrs. Kendal: Valerie Leonard
Pinhead, Nurse Sandwich, Duchess, Princess Alexandra: Barbara Pinolini
Carr Gomm, Conductor, Count: James Slaughter
Oboist: Martha Goldstein
Directed by Jim Petosa
2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road
Olney, MD
Ticket Information: 301-924-3400 or www.olneytheatre.org


Photo: Stan Barouh


-- Susan Berlin


Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for D.C.



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