“If your mercy is so cruel, what do you have for justice?”
The most important part of a play is whether or not the story is being told. Don’t get me wrong – I love big sets and lots of production values – but at the end of the day it all boils down to the story, and if the acting, set, and direction support the telling of it or not. CATCO’s production of Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man is a brilliant example of a play that works, beautifully written with challenging and touching scenes that need no more than to be performed by capable actors. This production has talented performers on board, so it is disheartening when the staging and set get in the way of the story being told.
The Elephant Man premiered in London in 1978 before opening to acclaim on Broadway in 1979, garnering Tony Awards for Best Play and Best Direction of a Play; an Emmy-winning television adaptation was broadcast in 1982; a theatrical film directed by David Lynch was released in 1980, but it was not based on the play; and Broadway revivals in 2002 and 2014 starred Billy Crudup and Bradley Cooper, respectively. It is about the true story of Joseph (“John”) Merrick, a severely deformed man who was a side show attraction in the late 1800s in England. He suffered much abuse and ostracism before being rescued in a sense by Dr. Frederick Treves, who studied and made a home for him at The London Hospital. He experienced being a part of high society and receiving compassion for a time before his death in 1890 at the age of twenty-seven.
The Elephant Man is widely recognized as a classic; a tearjerker in the best sense of the word, and a grand challenge for any actor as the deformity of Merrick is suggested rather than presented realistically with prosthetics. I was fully prepared for an emotional experience upon attending this Steven C. Anderson production, and yet I was unmoved. Thinking perhaps I was suffering from a foul mood, I saw it again later in the week and again was emotionally dry. Staged in a three-quarter thrust setting, I saw it from the left and then the right with different elements catching my attention both times.
Each scene is introduced with a title projected on a backdrop comprised of a line of dialogue from the forthcoming scene. The support beams in the octagonal raised platform obscure parts of these titles from being read from nearly every seat save for the extreme angles on the far left and right sides. A printed list of these scene titles is included in the program, and an announcement is made before the production commences about the issue. But here’s the thing – they aren’t necessary. They telegraph the action, break up transitions unnecessarily, cause a lot of leaning on the part of the audience to see them around the support beams, and are the cause of audible shuffling of the paper inserts throughout the show.
The first time I saw this production was to the left of the action, and the performances that stood out to me were by Ben Gorman as Dr. Frederick Treves and Sarah Dandridge as Mrs. Kendal, an actress who befriends Merrick. Mr. Gorman is adept at projecting concern and, ultimately, paternal feelings for Merrick, while Ms. Dandridge is especially touching when her countenance melts as Merrick says, “Sometimes I think my head is so large because it is filled with dreams.” She understands fully the layers of her part (she is an actress playing an actress playing a friend), and during that scene I could see as her eyes began to tear that Merrick’s words were slicing through those walls to get to her core. From that point on, Ms. Dandridge adjusted her performance to be consistent with her emotional awakening, and it was a beautiful sight to behold. And yet, Connor McClellan as John Merrick, the key to the play, struck me as distant and cold, partly because I mostly just saw his back.
My second viewing of this work was on the right side, and this time I was more responsive to Mr. McClellan’s performance while also being impressed by Christopher Moore Griffin as Ross, Merrick’s abusive manager, who eventually robs and leaves Merrick for dead. Mr. Griffin is gruff and distinct with a hint of Alfred P. Doolittle in him, a biting embodiment of the cruelty to which Merrick has become accustomed. Mr. Griffin then appears solemn and pious as Bishop Walsham How, so opposite his role as Ross that I wasn’t entirely sure he was the same actor. And as for Mr. McClellan’s performance as John Merrick…
“Merrick’s face was so deformed he could not express any emotion at all,” states Mr. Pomerance in the introduction to his published play. “His speech was very difficult to understand without practice. Any attempt to reproduce his appearance and his speech naturalistically – if it were possible – would seem to me not only counterproductive, but, the more remarkably successful, the more distracting from the play.” Mr. McClellan appears to be working very hard to emulate Merrick’s posture and frozen visage, so much so that a lot of the emotion doesn’t come through. It doesn’t help that the set and staging works to make nearly every seat in the theatre partial view for extended periods of time, even the center section. Mr. McClellan comes off as so focused and technically accomplished that at times I was acutely aware that it was a performance in a play, impressive as hell, but with invisible barriers. Perhaps some of this is intentional, as he seems to relax his tight grasp as the play goes on, and it helped to see so much more of his face when I saw the play for the second time from the right. And yet, when I finally was experiencing more of Mr. McClellan’s effort, I missed out on what touched me so in Ms. Dandridge’s performance when I viewed the play the first time from the left. It was almost as if I had to cut between both performances I saw from different angles in my mind to get the most out of the play; no doubt seeing it for a third time from the center would reveal even more that the work has to offer, but why should that be necessary if it is staged and presented so that everyone has a clear view of the pertinent action? The answer: it isn’t.
There is only one scene that I found to be poorly played; it is when Mrs. Kendal “exposes” herself to Merrick. In the 1982 television version of the play, the scene implies nudity by showing her slowly unbuttoning and unlacing her blouse and corset, her bare back to the camera. Her gaze stays fixed on Merrick, and her warning, “If you tell anyone, I shall not see you again,” is said with weight. It is a tense, sexually charged moment in that production, but here it comes off as comical as Mrs. Kendal merely shows a bit of her corset to Merrick, smiling as if it is a game. I don’t think bare breasts need to be shown, but without any skin on display the reaction of Dr. Treves upon entering the room made little sense.
CATCO’s production of The Elephant Man is ultimately a mixed bag. There are some extremely good performances, but design and staging elements work against the storytelling. I saw the play twice and had a different reaction each time, but both experiences fell short of reaching the potential of the material. There is still a lot to admire here, and it is a very handsome production overall, but I walked away feeling less affected than I had expected.
** out of ****
The Elephant Man continues through to November 8th in Studio Two at the Riffe Center on 77 South High Street in downtown Columbus, and more information can be found at http://catco.org/shows/2015-2016/the-elephant-man