Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man produced a sensation on Broadway by specifying that a handsome, fit, man (Philip Anglim) should portray John Merrick, whose physical affliction is so severe as to produce a substantially deformed body. The play arrived at a time when groups that had been advised to stay in the background (including, women, people of color, and lesbians and gay men) were demanding to move into the foreground. It also arrived as performance scholars were examining the physical body as a key to understanding the process of bringing a text alive.
Given these cultural influences, it is no wonder that The Elephant Man enjoyed not only an award-winning run but that stars such as David Bowie, Bruce Davison, and Mark Hamill lined up to serve as replacements for Mr. Anglim – or, that David Lynch would make a film version where Merrick was portrayed as he may have actually looked.
Times have changed, at least to some degree, and it is not a surprise to meet someone who is intelligent and charming – and also differently abled. The Elephant Man, perhaps, no longer has the bite it once enjoyed.
At least, that’s the way things seemed at the opening of the co-production by The Oceanside Theatre Company and the Backyard Renaissance Theatre Company at The Brooks Theatre in Oceanside.
Based on a true story, The Elephant Man opens at a freak show where Merrick (Francis Gercke) is on display, along with a group of “pinheads” (Andrew Oswald, Celeste innocent, Dagmar Fields, and Anthony Methvin). A young physician, Dr. Frederick Treves (Nick Cagle) sees Merrick and convinces his new superior at the hospital (Mr. Oswald, again) to, essentially, purchase Merrick from the freak show owner (Brian Salmon) and bring him to the hospital, where he can be housed away from public gaze.
…ultimately, The Elephant Man has to be about ideas, not style…
A “parade of horribles” ensues, where the hospital works to raise funds for Mr. Merrick’s care and Treves finds staff who won’t either be aghast at Merrick’s appearance or desire to abuse him.
Eventually, Treves engages Mrs. Kendal (Jessica John), an actress, to interact with Merrick while ignoring his condition. Kendal is successful, and Merrick is revealed to be charming and full of insight about himself and the society in which he lives. Word of his charm attracts London’s high society to his hospital room. Well known people meet him and find him to possess some of what they consider to be their own best qualities.
Merrick’s renown allows him artistic and intellectual pursuits. He builds a model of London’s St. Philip’s Church. He debates the relationship between religion and science. He analyzes Romeo and Juliet, and finds his own Juliet in Mrs. Kendal.
In short, Merrick comes into his own, only to find his physical condition growing increasingly worse, to the point where his death becomes inevitable.
Co-directors Christopher Williams and Mr. Gercke have mounted a dark (lighting design by Karin Filijan), somewhat off-center production that is dominated by a projection screen mounted at an angle and provides the illusion that the stage is raked sideways. Joe Huppert’s projections are eerily expressionistic (Mr. Huppert also produced the sound design). Only Roz Lehman’s costumes appear conventional amid minimal set pieces designed by Ron Logan.
But, ultimately, The Elephant Man has to be about ideas, not style, and the cast’s engagement with those ideas never quite takes flight. Mr. Gercke and Ms. John provide the most spark, and it is a pleasure to watch their scenes. Mostly, though, the cast muddles its way using uncertain accents (coached by Jillian Frost, whose work in Parlour Song, Backyard Renaissance’s inaugural production, was stellar).
Perhaps it’s the play, that the ideas have become so readily accepted as to have lost their vibrancy. Then again, perhaps not.