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San Francisco by Richard Connema

The Elephant Man, Bosoms and Neglect
and Assassins


Inspired Performances in Bernard Pomerance's The Elephant Man

The Elephant Man
Aldo Billingslea and Jason Kuykendall
It's been a long time since I have seen this interesting drama of the true story of the "elephant man," Joseph Merrick. I first saw the drama at the Hampstead Theatre in the U.K. in 1977 and then later in New York at the Booth Theatre with Philip Anglim playing Merrick and Carole Shelley as Mrs. Kendal. The play won the Tony Award for best drama that year, Ms. Shelley walked away with a Tony for best actress, and both actors won New York Drama Critics Awards.

TheatreWorks' is a very stylish version of the Victorian melodramatic play with two inspired performances by Aldo Billingslea as John Merrick and Rebecca Dines as Mrs. Kendal. This extravagant morality play's twenty-one scenes take place during the last six years of Merrick's life when he was rescued from a freak show by Doctor Frederick Treves (Jason Kuykendall) and given a home at the London Hospital in Whitechapel. Merrick's power of spirit and the double standards of Victorian society are emphasized.

The stage version of Bernard Pomerance's morals play differs from the British film starting John Hurt. There is very little actual plot in this version. Merrick's dismal exploitation by a sideshow manager (Ron Gnapp) and his liberation by the doctor are dealt with in fairly short order. The dramatic scenes go by at mind-boggling speed through the poignant meeting between Merrick and Mrs. Kendal. Those scenes are beautiful and touching.

Aldo Billingslea is brilliant as Merrick. His performance is nuanced and intriguing enough to make his character engaging and compelling. He is instinctive with every painful twist of his body and the way he forces words out of the side of his mouth. When we first see this astounding actor with his nearly naked muscular body come onto the stage, Treves is giving a lecture with slides showing the real John Merrick. As the doctor is giving the medical lecture to describe the facial deformities, the actor amazingly transforms himself into the Elephant Man. He twists his mouth to one side and controls his back so that his legs twist beneath him. It is an incredible physical performance.

Rebecca Dines excels as the breathless, intellectual and kindhearted actress Mrs. Kendal, called upon by Treves to provide womanly companionship for Merrick. There is obvious chemistry between the two upon their first meeting. Their scenes are the highlight of this two-hour with one intermission play. The scene which shows Merrick shyly asking to see Mrs. Kendal's body is touching. Ms. Dine also takes on the role of one of the pinheads and a countess who visits Merrick.

Jason Kuykendall is effective as Dr. Frederick Treves. However, in the second act when Treves attempts to tell Reverand Walsham about his social conscience, he goes overboard in the long speech. In fact, the good Bishop has the best line when he says "I don't know what you are talking about."

The supporting roles are well cast with most of the actors taking on multiple roles. There is good work from Ron Gnapp who plays the sideshow manager Ross, the angelic Bishop Walsham How, and the Porter at the hospital. His British and cockney accents are perfect. Edward Sarafian gives a sterling performance as Carr Gomm, head of the London hospital, and the small role of the train conductor. Brian Herndon takes on five roles and he does extremely well with each. Ayla Yarkut is very regal as Princess Alexandra and changes to a charming, lightheaded pinhead in some scenes. Shane Olbourne and Joseph O'Malley have small non-speaking roles as orderlies.

Director Robert Kelley has been gifted with the mesmeric talents of Aldo Billingslea and Rebecca Dines. He successfully fulfills the playwright's aim without using a Brechtian style of acting.

Andrea Bechert has designed an eloquent set of a Victorian London Hospital with high arched windows on wrap-around balconies. Lighting by Steven B. Mannshardt is excellent as sunlight pours through the windows. Special mention should be made of dialect coach Richard Newton who has given all of the actors spot-on English accents.

The Elephant Man plays through July 15th at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View. For tickets call 650-903-6000 or visit www.theatreworks.com. The company's next production is the West Coast premiere of Theophilus North, adapted by Matthew Burnett and based on the novel by Thornton Wilder. It opens at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alton on July 18th.

Photo: David Allen


A Clever and Sharp Production of John Guare's Bosoms and Neglect

Bosoms and Neglect
Joan Mankin and Cassidy Brown
Playwright John Guare, best known for Six Degrees of Separation and House of Blue Leaves, wrote a cutting-edge comedy about people addicted to psychotherapy in 1979. Bosoms and Neglect premiered at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago on March 1 of that year. This is a prime example of Guare's early work, in which exhibited a flair for the absurd.

Aurora Theatre is currently reviving this edgy, pre-Prozac comedy about love and psychotherapy with three stimulating actors. The main character, a noted New York psychiatrist, is never seen in the two act, two-and-a-half hour production. The comedy revolves around Scooper (Cassidy Brown), a computer nerd who is an emotionally insecure man edging reluctantly into his forties. He has a major problem relating to women. He turns his attention toward Deirdre (Beth Wilmurt), a beautiful bibliophile who is a very neurotic woman and a compulsive liar. Both have been patients of Dr. James for years. Scooper sees the doctor eleven months of the year, three times a week at $50 per treatment. Deirdre sees the doctor five times a week at $40 a Neither seems to have made much progress since they are both highly neurotic. Into this equation comes Scooper's highly dysfunctional, blind ailing mother Henny (Joan Mankin) who is a firm believer in St. Jude, the saint of impossible cases. She waves a plastic statue of the saint around the breast cancer in an attempt to heal herself.

Both Scooper and Deidre are left to fend for themselves during the month of August since the good doctor has gone on vacation, and they turn to each other and begin an affair that can only be called "crazy love." Both of these characters engage in vocal and physical foreplay in Deidre's apartment, which is conveniently across the street from the offices of Dr. James. Throughout the first act, zingers come fast and furious on books and psychoanalysts. By act's end, both are in the hospital. The various functions of "bosoms" refer to the mother's breast, which has an ulcerated cancer, plus the fact that the son has stayed closed to mother's apron strings.

Bosoms and Neglect's second act centers on the intriguing mother Henny, just recovering from a mastectomy. She has the best lines in the comedy as she berates her son who is now a hospital patient suffering from stab wounds from a fight with Deidre. They exchange disturbing brutalities in their confrontation. We learn of the characters' neuroses, their imaginings, and their nightmares in a comical way.

Cassidy Brown (Death of Meyerhold, Deathtrap, You Can't Take It With You) immerses himself as Scooper (he named himself when he was a child because he liked to scoop up sand on the beach). He gives a painfully funny performance as the 40-year-old man at loose ends. Beth Wilmurt (Salome, 4 Adverbs for Word for Word) is enchanting as the book-lover Deirdre. Her various fine distinctions from initial apprehension to an erotic scene with Scooper to a wild physical slapstick climax in the first act are amazing. The timing between these two excellent actors in the first act with a droll Mamet style of dialogue is first rate.

Joan Mankin is superb as the dysfunctional mother sporting a shanty Irish accent that reminds me of the great film character actress Thelma Ritter. She induces empathy and irritation with her charming witty Irish delivery.

Director Joy Carlin keeps the comedy moving swiftly. J.B. Wilson's set is an attractive upscale, modern Manhattan apartment located in the center of the three-sided stage with pink and white glowing lighting by Jon Retsky.

Bosoms and Neglect plays through July 22nd at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley. For tickets call 510-843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org. Their next production is Terry Johnson's Hysteria, which opens the 16th theatre season on August 24 and runs through September 30.

Photo: David Allen


A Bold and Provocative Production of Sondheim's Assassins

Assassins
Kalon Thibodeaux, Ben Knoll, Ty Blair, Edward Hightower, Charles Evans
Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman's Assassins is a tough musical to produce on anyone's stage, but the Custom Made Theatre is presenting an intrepid and stimulating production through July 21st at the Off Market Theatre.

Over the years I have seen many productions of this ironic paean to presidential assassins, including the recent Broadway production at Studio 54 with an all-star cast. Several local regional theatre companies have presented the one hour forty-five minute musical, including the controversial production by the defunct Venus Arising Company. The American Musical Theatre of San Jose attempted to present the musical in two acts several years ago.

Assassins is not a musical for the masses but for the open-minded musical aficionado. I must admit when I first saw the divisive piece, I was taken aback. Since then, I have appreciated the complex melodies and lyrics of one of America's greatest tune smiths.

Custom Made Theatre's scintillating, fast-paced production features mostly strong voices and excellent acting. Some of the voices are weak, but those actors make up for it with their acting skills. Upon entering the theatre a quartet consisting of a violin, accordion, drum and piano are playing American folk songs like "My Old Kentucky Home." The Proprietor (Charles Evans), along with the rest of the cast, comes onto the small stage to sing "Everybody's Got the Right" as the quartet swings into Sondheim's intricate melodies.

Kalon Thibodeaux (Gay Divorce, Minnie's Boys at 42nd Street Moon and I Hate Hamlet at CCT) is outstanding as Leon Czolgosz. He is brilliantly disturbing as the man who assassinated President McKinley on behalf of "the good working people." Thibodeaux' rendition of the gun song with the rest of the cast is fear-provoking.

Edward Hightower (Oliver!, She Loves Me, Nine) gives an ardent performance as John Wilkes Booth and has that southern theatrical accent down perfectly. Chris Uzelac (The Merry Widow, Seussical) dressed a head to toe in black, delivers a highly polished portrait of the deluded Charles Guiteau. He shines in "The Ballad of Guiteau" as he mounts the stairs of the intimate theatre.

Molly Coogan (worked with 42nd Street Moon, Magic Theatre, Theatreworks) and Shelley Lynn Johnson (A Little Night Music, Man of No Importance) are entertaining as the satanic Manson waif and the wacko housewife, respectively. Ben Knoll (recent theatre arts graduate from Truman Stage University) looks and acts like the lovesick John Hinckley. He gives an effective rendition of "Unworthy of Your Love."

Perry Aliado (third production with this company) sports an authentic accent as Giuseppe Zangara, who attempted to assassinate FDR. He gives good account of himself in the song "How I Saved Roosevelt." Ty Blair (The Buddy Holly Story, Ragtime) is first rate as the frightening, loud-mouth Sam Byck, who was obsessed with Richard Nixon. Aliado operates on high energy when he give his two solos. Charles Evans (Merrily We Roll Along, Company) gives a pleasurable performance as The Proprietor.

Leah S. Abrams (co-founder of the company) is top notch as The Balladeer. Gabriel A. Ross (Equus) comes onto the stage in the last fifteen minutes as Lee Harvey Oswald. He gives an impressive and upsetting performance as the assassin of JFK.

Choral work by the complete cast is stirring, especially the renditions of "Everybody's Got the Right" sung at the beginning and end of the one-act musical. Brian Katz' direction is very creative with very limited resources on the bare bones stage. One could say that only Sondheim could have created such a musical that caters to our darkest instincts.

Assassins runs through July 21 at the Off-Market Stage, 965 Mission Street, (between 5th and 6th), San Francisco.


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema



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