Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Also see Eddie's review of Miss Saigon
Within minutes of the play's beginning, it is clear to the hushed audience that City Lights Theater Company has cast a John Merrick who can stand up to the best of those who have won accolades and awards in the past 25+ years for this most difficult stage role in Bernard Pomerance's The Elephant Man (including 1979 and 2015 Tony nominations for Philip Anglim and Bradley Cooper, respectively). Further, it only takes an added-for-this-production, silently staged prologue introducing us to the streets and citizens of Victorian London, high and low of birth, to realize that Lisa Mallette is not going to be intimidated by the scores of much larger stages and auditoria where The Elephant Man has played in all its many premieres and tours since 1979. As City Lights Artistic Director and director of this production, she is giving us a chance to see (and hear) up close a John Merrick we probably have not had a chance to meet in the same way, no matter how many times and in what venues we may have come across Merrick in our theatregoing lives.
From the moment he begins the slow, exacting transformation from his own body into that of Merrick's deformed stature, George Psarras commands the stage and the awed attention of all. His story is one of being rescued by a caring, but also scientifically curious, Dr. Frederick Treves of the Royal London Hospital from the ravages of a mocking London mob (after being abandoned on the streets by his former freak show manager). Every movement, every breath, is one of labor. Sitting in a tub in his new home at the hospital (funded for life by generous London donors) and silently sponging his stinking, sore body, Mr. Psarras' Merrick hardly reacts when a potential nurse screams in horror when seeing him. Yet as he comes to understand and trust, "I have a home ... This is my home," he yet again transforms before us. His labored, clumsy movements begin to show the grace of a ballet dancer as he slowly glides with a newfound lift across the floor to greet societal and royal guests who now come to befriend him. His voice goes from jumbled, hollow utterances to refined phrases spoken with increased confidence. ("Sometimes I think my head is so big because it is so full of ideas.") What he says goes from simply repeating what his guardian doctor wants him to say in order to fit a Victorian definition of "normalcy" to what Merrick feels compelled to say to challenge the norms around him. To the doctor, he asks after a hospital aide who, after sneaking in to gawk at Merrick, is fired even though he has a family full of hungry kids at home: "If your mercy is so cruel, what do you have for justice?" And, he is not without tongue-in-cheek humor of his own condition, declaring God "should have used both hands" when he created his body.
Many moments of Mr. Psarras' performance are mesmerizing, but none is so captivating as when he expresses his tearful gratitude to a visiting, beautiful actress, Mrs. Kendal, as she takes his hand and declares with much conviction, "I am very pleased to have made your acquaintance, Mr. Merrick." Kristin Brownstone is also, along with Mr. Psarras, a true star of this production as she takes on the role of Merrick's closest friend and ally. Wearing elegant gowns of the era, she visits frequently, soon convincing both John and us that Mrs. Kendal genuinely finds her newfound, still grossly disfigured friend a man her equal and someone she clearly likes being around. Ms. Brownstone is sincere but refined, encouraging yet realistic, and bold but with clear thought and purpose in her interactions with Merrickincluding an act of love and caring that will lead to unintended consequences.
A pivotal role in Merrick's story, portrayed by Max Tachis, is Dr. Frederick Treves, Merrick's companion and main benefactor at his hospital home. Dr. Treves often tries to mold Merrick into an image he has affixed firmly in his head of a Victorian gentleman, but he is also clearly proud of his independent, artistic, and highly popular protégé. But Dr. Treves is a much-troubled man, as is displayed in an oft-taut body and fisted hands by his side or his pained, blank stare out into some unknown scene of suffering in his mind's eye. He operates without needed anesthesia; he must admit to an inquisitive Merrick that only "some" of his patients survive his care; and he sees the too fast approaching day when John will die at a too early age. Dr. Treves is tormented by the injustices of a God he does not believe as well as by his own nightmares of inadequacy (as so vividly seen in own horror dream sequence in which a lecturing Merrick criticizes to a laughing crowd Dr. Treves's body). The plagued doctor confides to us, "Like his [Merrick's] condition that I make no sense of, I make no sense of mine."
The others of this cast of eleven play multiple parts ranging from nurses and police to lords, ladies, and a crowned princess. Among them, Tom Gough as Bishop How is a kindly, spiritual guide and friend of John Merrick's and a compassionate but unyielding sparring partner with Dr. Treves. Jay Steele is the distinguished, well-spoken hospital administrator Carr Gomm, who sees the fundraising benefit of housing Merrick but who also shows his own protective fondness for his permanent guest. Karen DeHart is first a freaked-out Miss Sandwich whose days of African leprosy colony aid-giving did not prepare her for seeing Merrick and is later a princess who "graciously" honors John with a signed picture of herself.
Ron Gasparinetti's staging is simple but dignified with its several levels of wood-paneled floors spread across the stage's width, all supported by clothed columns that quickly become flowing drapes as needed. Pat Tyler's period costumes present with total believability a wide range of characters from carnival riffraff to hospital personnel to England's high and mightynot to mention the changing state and status of John Merrick himself. Spot-specific lighting is often used by Nick Kumamoto to focus attention on a John Merrick moment not to be lost too quickly or on the series of individual London citizens who announce throughout the evening the chapters of the story unfolding before us. And masterful sound design (along with original music) by the evening's prime star George Psarras bring the street chatter, trolley noises, and general hubbub of 1880s London all around us.
What does it take to be normal enough to be accepted by others? Who dictates normalcy and to what ends? Where can we find empathy and similarity if we expose without pre-judgment ourselves to those clearly different from us? What dictates do our own illusions play in who we are in our daily lives, and what happens when something unexpectedly bursts one of them? Along with telling a story largely based in the historical archives of the still-existing Royal London Hospital, Bernard Pomerance's The Elephant Man poses many questions without offering easy answers. Director Lisa Mallette and the cast and crew of City Lights Theater Company sensitively, beautifully, and creatively highlight the script's questions in such a way to challenge us to ask them anew about our present selves and the society and world around us.
City Lights Theater Company production of The Elephant Man continues through April 17, 2016, on its main stage at 529 South Second Street, San Jose. Tickets are available online at cltc.org or by calling 408-295-4200 Monday - Friday, 1-5 p.m.