Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Las Vegas

The Elephant Man
A Public Fit
Review by Mary LaFrance


Andrew Calvert and Kurt Hellerich
Photo by Richard Brusky
Bernard Pomerance's The Elephant Man, winner of the 1979 Tony Award for Best Play, is based on the true story of John Merrick, a severely deformed young man in Victorian London who suffered from what is known today as Proteus Syndrome. Reviled and abused for his grotesque appearance and wracked with constant pain, Merrick spent his early years forced to labor in a workhouse, then became part of a traveling freak show, only to be robbed and abandoned by his employer. Alone and destitute, he at last found shelter at London Hospital under the care of a young surgeon, Dr. Frederick Treves.

In Pomerance's interpretation, Merrick is a sensitive and intelligent man who dreams of being like others. Although he escapes the cruel exploitation of the freak show, becomes an avid reader and artist, embraces religious education under the tutelage of the attentive Bishop How, and becomes the darling of high society, Merrick can never achieve his goal of overcoming his otherness. For the socialites and aristocrats who visit him and shower him with gifts, he is a mirror for their vanity. (One can't help but draw parallels to modern celebrities and their fashionable causes.) Even the compassionate and high-minded Dr. Treves, who truly cares about Merrick's wellbeing, uses him as an object of study and an opportunity for career advancement. Despite the improvement in Merrick's quality of life, Treves grows increasingly frustrated at being unable to halt the decline in his patient's health, leading to the doctor's own crisis of confidence.

Of all Merrick's new acquaintances, the most unselfish is the seemingly superficial actress Mrs. Kendall, whom Treves recruits out of desperation after finding that no woman can stand the sight of Merrick—not even the trained nurse who bragged about her work with lepers in Africa. Kendall, at least, has the training to hide her initial revulsion. To Treves' surprise, however, Kendall becomes genuinely fond of Merrick, and opens doors that transform his life.

The Elephant Man combines serious, challenging drama with moments of great humor and joy, but its psychological dimensions require strong acting from every member of the company. Fortunately, co-directors Ann-Marie Pereth and Joseph D. Kucan have assembled for this A Public Fit prduction an exceptional cast and elicited fine performances from all of them. Their production is thoughtful, compelling and poignant.

Equity actor Kurt Hellerich plays Merrick without makeup or prosthetics. Instead, he distorts his face, voice and physique to suggest Merrick's painful condition. His performance is far more than physical theatrics, however—Hellerich also captures Merrick's pain, loneliness, intellectual curiosity, humor and compassion. It's a heartfelt and convincing portrait of society's outcast.

Tina Rice is excellent as Mrs. Kendall, an actress full of stereotypical ego and affectation but also capable of tremendous empathy and strength. When first introduced to Merrick, Kendall's horror is disguised but unmistakable. Hellerich and Rice play this scene as a delicate and cautious dance. It's hard to say which character has more to fear. The scene culminates in a small gesture with powerful impact.

As the sincere but conflicted Treves, Andrew Calvert is completely convincing. Raised in England and trained at London's Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Calvert embraces the posture and manner of a Victorian gentleman in a way that seems natural rather than affected. As Treves begins to suffer from self-doubt, Calvert conveys his unraveling through subtle changes in voice and gesture.

As befits the play's subject matter, physicality is a hallmark of this production. Movement coach Lesley Mendenhall has paid special attention to Victorian postures, and the ramrod-straight spines of Merrick's visitors and caregivers are a cruel contrast to his own twisted anatomy.

Costume designer Mariya Radeva-Nedyalkova has outfitted the characters beautifully in shades of black, white and grey. (Her sketches decorate the program as well.) The ladies' Victorian gowns are especially lovely, and Mendenhall's coaching ensures that the actresses wear them with style.

Liz Kline's lighting design is highly evocative, and sound designer Tim Sage makes effective use of incidental music.

The Elephant Man, through May 26, 2019, at The Usual Place, 100 S. Maryland Pkwy., Las Vegas NV. Performances are Thursday-Saturday at 7:30 pm, Sundays and May 18 at 2 pm. For tickets ($30 general admission, $25 students and seniors) and further information, visit www.apublicfit.org.

Cast:
Orderly, Porter: Richard Ortiz
Ross, Bishop How, Snork: Timothy Cummings
Carr Gomm, Conductor: Erik Amblad
Frederick Treves, Belgian Policeman: Andrew Calvert
John Merrick: Kurt Hellerich
Pinhead Manager, London Policeman, Will, Lord John: Jake Staley
Pinhead, Mrs. Kendall, Countess: Tina Rice
Pinhead, Nurse Sandwich, Duchess, Princess Alexandra: Coco Lane Rigbye

Additional Creative:
Scenic Design: Eric A. Koger


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