The Elephant Man – Soul Mine
A REVIEW BY THE BAD ORACLE
(This is The Bad Oracle’s “staff pass” disclosure: someone involved in this production is a member of the staff of The Bad Oracle. The individual did not write or participate in writing this review. This is an exception to our usual disclaimer(s), which is why it is here.)
Something to understand about nineteenth-century London: it wasn’t exactly pretty. Watch enough Downton Abbey and you start thinking too much about gorgeous day dresses and not enough about boils. Because boils were a thing. And, prior to the advent of convenient, safe, and affordable dentistry, people’s teeth weren’t looking so hot, either. My point is that John Merrick, the titular “Elephant Man” in Bernard Pomerance’s powerful play, wasn’t just ugly, a lot of people were ugly. He was the ugliest. Born with a combination of diseases that rendered him disfigured, his ruined body struggling to breathe and to walk, Merrick looked like, well. A monster. The tragedy of Merrick’s life, though, as Pomerance aptly points out, was not outside. It was inside, where a sensitive, intelligent, artistic soul lay trapped for the entirety of his twenty-eight years on earth. If God had had any mercy, he would have made Merrick insensible of his condition. But maybe there isn’t any God. Or maybe God wasn’t the one who had anything to do with it.
When I saw that director Anthony Hinkle was attached to this project, I wondered for a moment. Hinkle is known for clean, elegantly styled productions, as evidenced by last year’s The 39 Steps, also with Fells Point Corner Theatre. My concern was not that Hinkle couldn’t handle The Elephant Man, my concern was that it would be handled too well. I didn’t want the show to be directed to the point that it turned bloodless, distancing the audience from the raw emotion inherent in the script. I needn’t have worried. Hinkle and Grayson Owen, who plays Merrick, create the man from the inside out (the show is not traditionally performed with the lead wearing any type of makeup or prosthetic). It is 100% convincing, moving, what I would call a masterfully directed and acted performance. My God, the bodywork here. But it’s more than Owen playing in an actor’s sandbox (and trust me, if I had seen even one ounce of scenery chewing from him, I’d have been all over it, but I didn’t). Crucially, both he and Hinkle refuse to pity Merrick. They pity everyone else, everyone who missed it, who missed him. They pity us.
Owen is not one the only who is fine-tuned. Aladrian Wetzel playing (primarily) Mrs. Kendal, an actress of the day who becomes rather unlikely pals with Merrick after he lands permanently in a hospital, is glorious. I loved the intersecting emotions that pass over her face at her first meeting with Merrick: disgust, sympathy, interest. This scene, where it dawns on Mrs. Kendal that there is a human being inside of Merrick’s hideous mask, is so delicate, so sensitively played (by both), and so very, very sad. There is a moment where Mrs. Kendal, the famous actress, completely forgets to act, that Wetzel conveys heartbreakingly. Sean Coe plays Dr. Frederick Treves, Merrick’s physician, rescuer, and authority figure, at a curious intersection of human brutality and kindness. Coe’s briskness in the part seems to originate from the dark thoughts of Treves, who wonders in his heart if maybe he isn’t just replicating a different sort of freakshow at the London. As genuine affection begins to grow between the men, Coe makes us understand that Treves loves John, and is deeply affected not only by his condition, but by the simple fact that he will certainly lose his friend.
Mark Scharf steps smart as Carr Gomm, the head of the hospital and a sort of foil to Treves. Gomm is not unsympathetic, but he’s interested in Merrick mostly as a medical curiosity (and, as Scharf slyly conveys, perhaps also in the contributions that Merrick’s plight brings in). Elizabeth Ung shines brightest in the supporting cast, particularly as the unfeeling Nurse Sandwich. Frank Mancino takes a deep bite into Ross, a heartless sideshow promoter, which was ickily great, though I wish I could understand what the fuck he’s saying half the time (though, to be honest, a lot of British people sound like Masterpiece Classic on fast forward to my American ears, so). Darius Foreman, playing several smaller characters, is unfortunately unsure of his accent and looks uncomfortable much of the time, but that’s only inexperience, and how the fuck do you get experience if no one lets you try?
Technically, the show is brilliant. Seriously, it’s impeccable, and that’s due to both the talent of the design team and Hinkle’s uncompromising vision. The set (design by Kel Millionie) is several notches above what I normally see at FPCT, a multi-layered creation that brings to mind, at different times, an operating theater, an Edwardian mansion, and a dog-fighting pit. The set also incorporates well-done projections (Hinkle and Millionie), which contextualize the proceedings without hitting you over the head. Lighting, also by Millionie, is sensitive and shaped (I particularly liked the shadows cast through the french doors, which call to mind, ever-so-slightly, prison bars). Costumes by Ben Kress are posh and lush, especially the couture fit gown on Wetzel by Shelly Steffens Joyce. If there was an off element for me, it was in the sound design by Chris Aldrich. I found the underscoring a bit ill-timed (especially the jaunty music under a poignant scene where Merrick is building a church model) and, to come up to the level of the rest of the technical elements, I would have liked to hear more nuance.
BOTTOM LINE: The Elephant Man is the result of careful study, meticulous research, and, in my opinion, quite a bit of soul searching on the part of everyone involved. Director Anthony Hinkle and lead Grayson Owen have succeeded in something very rare: they have made a show that is both gut-wrenchingly moving and artistically significant. Add in the stunning technical elements and you have a production that sets a ridiculously high bar for the small stage in this city. I will go at least one more time.
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