Having already been scarred by David Lynch's Eraserhead, I've never quite been up to the task of watching the Academy Award-winning film The Elephant Man—though it hasn't stopped me from consuming the entire "Twin Peaks" series twice. The Elephant Man, though, has always seemed utterly depressing, and so, waiting for the lights to dim for the UM School of Theatre and Dance's production of the play, I prepared for despair. Or so I told myself. The truth is, like a gaper at an old-timey circus, I was intrigued: How would the Elephant Man look? Would he be wearing a ghoulish mask of lumpy skin and paper mâché deformities?
The Elephant Man, directed here by Jere Hodgin, is based on the true story of Joseph Merrick (he's called John in the play), a man plagued by a bone disorder who lived during the latter half of the 19th century. It follows him from his stint as a circus freak and, most closely, during his years in a London hospital under the care of Dr. Frederick Treves. The circus portion is dominated by Reid Reimers, who you've most likely seen as Dr. Frank N. Furter in local Rocky Horror productions. He's wonderful as Ross, a cockney salesman with a jolly disposition who manages the freak show and returns in later scenes as a destitute old man.
The play is divided into chapters, with titles such as "This Indecency May Not Continue," which are projected onto three screens above the stage. But when it begins, before the chapters, the screens show Da Vinci's famous "Vitruvian Man." For a minute, it might mean nothing to you—it's become such a familiar image in our culture, like college dorm posters of Bob Marley, or John Belushi in Animal House. But then you remember the meaning of it as the "Canon of Proportions," Da Vinci's ideal man scaled to the classical orders of architecture. And it's even more meaningful when Merrick the Elephant Man first stands nearly naked in front of an observation deck where Treves points out his deformities to his medical staff.
This is the moment I thought I was waiting for, when Merrick, played by Hugh Bickely, would be shown to us as an abnormality of nature. But there's no crazy stage make-up. Instead, Bickley transforms his otherwise normal body into a contorted one: hip buckled, one arm extended too far past his waist, foot collapsed into a cramped-looking angle, head lolling back as though it were boulder-sized. And, after a while, you start to see it. Bickley's a good-looking guy and yet his transformation into a distorted body does the job of making him unusual. His stilted speech portrays him as the odd person who's been treated as an outsider his whole life. But he's also genuine and bold in a subtle way that so many actors playing outsiders tend to overdo. And it's refreshing. No need for make-up when you can create the illusion and redirect rubberneckers like me to the heart of the story.
Arcadea Jenkins is the actress who is asked to meet Merrick and pretend that she isn't repulsed. Jenkins plays her with high-pitched melodrama and fakeness—in other words, as a diva might naturally act—until she shakes Merrick's hand and forgets her pretense. It's a touching moment.
Cohen Ambrose plays Treves with equal nuance. At first you don't notice him. He's a kind-hearted, practical doctor who wants to help Bickley become normal. His interactions with the administrator of the London Hospital, Carr Gomm, are outstanding partly because the always fabulous Eric D. Hersh plays Gomm with such relish; he's a typical academic in a powerful institution, yet Hersh plays him without caricature and with engaging force. A favorite piece of dialogue:
"Now we have the money, what do you plan for Merrick?" says Gomm.
"Normality as far as possible," says the doctor.
"So he will be like us? Ah." Gomm smiles.
"Is something wrong, Mr. Gomm? With us?" responds the doctor.
Ah, some foreshadowing. In the doctor's voice you can hear the seed of worry begin to grow. Is something wrong with humanity? As Merrick's condition worsens, the doctor's tidy worldview begins to shatter, culminating in a powerful speech that Ambrose delivers as though he really were saying it for the first time—an outburst about how Merrick deteriorates despite his ambition to live, yet the "normal" people of the world who smoke and eat poorly and act ignorantly, do everything in their power to die. Here you have it: The Elephant Man is a foil and this story is about us!
This is a really good production. Despite its inherently sensational protagonist, despite a script that could easily be played with heavy-handedness and hysteria, it's done with grace. Each chapter is created like a snapshot. I didn't feel the despair I thought I would after seeing this sometimes stoic, sometimes humorous rendition of The Elephant Man. But hours afterward, over cocktails with friends, we didn't stop talking about it.
The Elephant Man continues at the Montana Theater in UM's PARTV Building Thursday, Oct. 13, through Saturday, Oct. 15, at 7:30 PM. $20.