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The Elephant Man

Also see Sharon's review of Small Engine Repair

The Elephant Man
Devri Richmond, Hilary Herbert, Stephanie Roche, Margarita Maliagros, Nick Cimiluca and Lyndsey Hogan
It seems unusual to advertise a play by trumpeting not the acting or the director's artistic vision, but the make-up. But when you're dealing with an Academy Award winning special make-up effects artist, and the play is Bernard Pomerance's The Elephant Man, perhaps the make-up is the director's vision. After all, this is a play generally known for not using prosthetics to create the title character's deformity. Here, director John Drouillard set special make-up effects designer Barney Burman loose on the task of designing a historically accurate John Merrick.

The result, unfortunately, is a failure on several levels. Preliminarily, it's very clear here that designs which might work on camera don't necessarily work on stage. This is most apparent not in the design of Merrick's costume, but the masks worn by the freak show "pinheads." While the masks themselves appear quite lifelike, the major flaw in their design is that the mouths on the masks are fixed; the actresses inside cannot move the mouths by actually moving their lips. The result is that their lines are either completely and utterly incomprehensible (as they are in their first scene) or sound like they are otherworldly speech coming from someplace else (as in a later dream sequence). Merrick's costume moves appropriately when he speaks; indeed, the entire prosthetic head is rather impressive. But the full body costume comes off as just a (probably very hot and uncomfortable) latex suit. The script tells us that Merrick's right hand is huge and covered with growths; the script also tells us that the growths on Merrick's skin correspond to bone beneath. But the oversized right hand on Merrick's costume does not appear to have any bone structure beneath it; it just flops around like so much rubber. If the make-up effects are this unconvincing, it would have been better to leave the appearances to the audience's imagination, as intended by the playwright.

Indeed, even if the make-up effects were absolutely perfect, this production is a lesson in why they wouldn't work for the play. Take the scene near the beginning when Dr. Treves displays Merrick to other physicians, describing in detail the condition of each part of Merrick's body. It's effective writing—making the audience imagine the scope of Merrick's deformity while it sees, in the man's face, Merrick's reactions to being described so clinically. But add in a full-body prosthetic, and you just get Treves describing what we can all see, and Merrick standing there as a visual aid, displaying his special effects suit.

Actor Sean Hoagland does his best with Merrick, but, again, the prosthetics get in the way. Completely deprived of any ability to show a facial expression, he's left with voice alone. (And in any scene in which Pomerance did not give Merrick a line to express his thoughts or reactions, Hoagland is left only with Merrick's increasingly labored breathing to get his feelings across.)

Drouillard's direction has little sense of pace or intensity. For the bulk of the play, it's just each scene (usually joining characters mid-conversation) played until the final emotional or humorous "button," and a blackout in which the next such scene is set up. It isn't so much the set changes themselves that are problematic—not everyone has automated turntables—but there's a definite lack of dramatic flow, both between the individual scenes and within the scenes themselves, which each just start in the middle and run inevitably to the poignant moment, before they give way to the setup for the next one. Perhaps this is in Pomerance's writing itself, but more inventive productions have gotten much more out of the play.

In most respects, the supporting cast adds little. At the performance reviewed, some performers went up on their lines; some lost track of their British accents, others didn't even try them. Characters were generally too broadly drawn; it may be understandable when one has only a few lines, but those who interact with Merrick over multiple scenes should display some development throughout the play. Hilary Herbert, as Mrs. Kendal the actress who befriends Merrick, begins and ends her interactions with him as an actress. There are wonderful opportunities—particularly in their last scene together—for Mrs. Kendal to drop her famous fašade and connect with Merrick on a real human level, but Herbert doesn't take Kendal there.

If there is a bright spot in the production, it is Alex Monti Fox as Treves. The relationship between Treves and Merrick is a complex one—Treves is clearly Merrick's savior, but he also uses Merrick for professional advancement and, at times, is a jerk to him. Fox doesn't shy away from Treves's less-than-admirable moments and, on occasion, shows us a glimmer of Treves's self-awareness and self-doubt. At one point, I thought I'd like to see Fox try a production of Equus, as his approach to Treves had certain elements of Dysart in it, which seemed worth exploring further.

A final note, although more of a pet peeve, is that the costumes all seem new and freshly pressed (with the exception of Merrick's, which looks to be stained with the sweat of an actor spending two hours in a latex suit). While it's possible that the Victorian upper classes kept their clothes so pristine, it's hard to believe that the fellow with fingerless gloves running a freak show would (especially when he admits to being down on his luck). For a production that put so much effort into the accuracy of its look, the cleanliness seems almost jarring.

The Elephant Man continues at the El Centro Theater through April 24, 2011. For tickets and information see www.theelephantmanplay.com.

Lascaux Entertainment presents The Elephant Man by Bernard Pomerance. Co-produced and Directed by John Drouillard; Co-produced by Natalie Drouillard; Sara Gunderson, Stage Manager; Vali Tirsoaga, Set Designer; Richard Taylor, Light Designer; Sarah Margulewicz, Sound Designer; Phoebe H. Boynton, Costume Designer; Barney Burman Special Character & Make-Up FX Designer.

Cast:
John Merrick - Sean Hoagland
Dr. Frederick Treves - Alex Monti Fox
Carr Gomm - Sal Viscuso
Mrs. Kendal - Hilary Herbert
Ross - David Folsom
Will, Lord John, Liverpool Policeman - Bill Durham
Bishop How, Belgian Policeman - Trent Hopkins
Pinheads Manager, Countess - Stephanie Roche
Miss Sandwich, Princess Alexandra - Devri Richmond
Snork, Conductor - Caleb Neet
Pinhead - Margarita Maliagros
Pinhead - Lyndsey Hogan
Giant - Nick Cimiluca

Photo by Alysa Brennan


- Sharon Perlmutter






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