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Vol. LXV, No. 16
Wednesday, April 20, 2011
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Theatre Intime Stages “The Elephant Man,” 1979 Broadway Hit; Abnormalities of the Main Character Reflect Our Own Deformities

Donald Gilpin

The Elephant Man is the story of the last seven years, 1884-1890, in the life of John Merrick of London, the “Elephant Man,” who suffered from neurofibromatosis, a genetic disorder that caused him to be grotesquely deformed.

Currently at Theatre Intime on the Princeton University campus, Bernard Pomerance’s drama, first produced in London in 1977, then on Broadway 1979-80, where it won both Tony and New York Drama Critics Circle Awards for best play, shines a discerning light on both the sordid and the inspirational details of Merrick’s life. It gives equal attention to Merrick’s impact on those with whom he comes into contact. Frederick Treves, a rising young London physician who takes an interest in his case, rescues Merrick from freak show performances in the street and finds him a home at a prominent London hospital, and the prominent actress Madge Kendal, who befriends them both, share center stage with Merrick in Mr. Pomerance’s play.

The Theatre Intime production, intelligently and skillfully directed by Princeton University junior Cara Tucker, creates these three main characters with compelling immediacy. The anguished physical and emotional struggles of Merrick (Ben Taub), the intense psychological crisis of Treves (Nick Hybel) and the powerful allure of Mrs. Kendal (Olivia Nice) carry the play and the audience swiftly through the 21 rapidly changing scenes of this captivating play.

Diana Arbus (1923-1971), renowned for her photographs of giants, dwarfs and other deformed individuals, once observed, “Most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma. They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.”

Merrick indeed reveals his “aristocracy” in this play, as he develops, under Treves ministrations, into a celebrity, supported by the philanthropy of British society and acquainted with many of the rich and famous of late Victorian England. The supporting characters, from a range of mostly upper class society, invariably see Merrick as a reflection of themselves. “He knows what side his bread is buttered on, and counts his blessings for it. Like me,” declares Mr. Gomm (Isaac Engels), the chief hospital administrator. “I can speak with him of anything. For I know he is discreet. Like me,” the duchess (Sandie Knuth) explains. “How odd. I think him curious, compassionate, concerned about the world, well, rather like myself,” reflects Treves. And the Bishop Walsham How (Matt Seely) opines, “I as a seminarist had many of the same doubts. Struggled as he does. And hope they may be overcome.” “Of course he is rather odd. And hurt. And helpless not to show the struggling. And so am I,” reflects the perceptive Mrs. Kendall.

Merrick’s authority in holding up the mirror to these characters, their society and humanity in general is especially acute and eloquent, however, when he dreams—“I think my head is so big because it is so full of dreams”—and when he objectively observes and questions—“If your mercy is so cruel, what do you have for justice?”

Mr. Taub is strikingly adept in portraying the physical and mental attributes of the Elephant Man. In accordance with notes to the script, the actor does not attempt with speech distortions and extreme make-up to create a realistic depiction of Merrick’s actual speech and appearance. “Merrick’s face was so deformed he could not express any emotion at all,” Mr. Pomerance reports. “His speech was very difficult to understand without practice.” Mr. Taub effectively contorts his face, shifts his jaw to speak through a distorted oval mouth, and twists his spine and hip to make movement appear painfully difficult. Happily for the audience, he delivers his words with complete clarity despite the appearance of an obvious speech defect. Mr. Taub’s characterization makes John Merrick increasingly appealing as the drama and the growth of the character progress. This portrayal works brilliantly for Mr. Pomerance’s somewhat sentimental, melodramatic play, though purists could certainly criticize the obvious deviations from the hideously grotesque reality of Merrick’s physical appearance. The shocked reactions to Merrick’s appearance throughout the play do seem less than credible in this context.

Mr. Hybel’s Treves, as the representative of the virtuous benevolence along with the complacency, hypocrisy and lack of self-understanding of Victorian society, is a convincing and sympathetic character. He is a man of his time, struggling with the growing realization that his own emotional, personal limitations constitute deformities as grotesque as those of his most famously deformed patient. In a particularly effective scene depicting Treves in a trance-like nightmare, Merrick and Treves reverse roles. Treves is the specimen on display, and Merrick lectures on the doctor’s abnormalities.

It is in the encounters between the actress and the Elephant Man, however, that the evening achieves its most riveting moments. Comprising the middle third of the play, these scenes proceed from Treves’ initial introduction of Mrs. Kendal to Merrick through their subsequent meetings, with increasing intellectual, emotional and romantic connection. The relationship culminates in Merrick’s confession that he has never seen a woman naked, followed by Mrs. Kendal’s willingness to oblige his fantasy and Merrick’s moving reaction—“It is the most beautiful sight I have seen. Ever.” Treves’ jarring interruption ends all contact between Merrick and Mrs. Kendal.

Ms. Nice, without affectation or artificiality, portrays this affectionate, complex character who is fully aware of herself, the illusions of her theater world and the illusions of human existence. The disrobing and ensuing moments are highly dramatic and utterly tasteful, artfully directed by Ms. Tucker and performed with commitment, credibility and integrity by Ms. Nice. This most powerful scene, leading to Ms. Kendal’s banishment from Merrick’s life forever, sets up inexorably and poignantly the sad denouement of the play.

The well rehearsed supporting cast features Mr. Engels, Mr. Seely, Sean Ashley as Merrick’s exploitative manager before he embraces the asylum of the hospital, Philip Rosen in a variety of roles, and Ms. Knuth, Mayanne Chess and Laura Gates as a sort of chorus of freak show performers (the “Pinheads”) who ably provide background sound and movement throughout the play. Ryohei Ozaki on viola is also on stage throughout much of the evening, artfully and effectively providing the often mournful interlude and background music and announcing the 21 different scenes.

Ms. Tucker has directed with a sure and sensitive hand, varying the pace and keeping the show moving briskly through its many scenes. A couple of early scenes, notably the ones set in the streets of Brussels and Liverpool, suffer from some confusion, exacerbated by lapses in diction (Mr. Ashley and Mr. Rosen), but these are minor distractions in an otherwise captivating evening.

With its diversions from realism to ensure audience detachment, its multiple scenes with titles, its use of somber music and its obvious moral, political messages, The Elephant Man takes on a distinctly Brechtian air. The results are interesting and thought-provoking.

The simple set by Ben Schaffer, with effective complementary lighting effects designed by Alex Mannix, consists of raised platforms on stage left and upstage right, with the downstage playing area alternately furnished with a desk, a tub and a bed. The scenery and props are functional and effective in delivering the essential drama here, and the simplicity of the design enables rapid, efficient scene changes. Ginny Farrell has designed the excellent period costumes.

“There are always two things that happen,” Diane Arbus describes in discussing the freaks she loved and spent much of her life photographing. “One is recognition and the other is that it’s totally peculiar. But there’s some sense in which I always identify with them.”

The Elephant Man, produced here at Intime with care, sensitivity and commitment, is one of the most memorable plays of the last half of the previous century. It evokes in its audience that dual sense of the peculiar and the recognizable, that Ms. Arbus describes and that we all can identify with.

Theatre Intime’s production of Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man will play for one more weekend, April 21-23, Thursday and Saturday, at 8 pm and Friday at 8 pm and midnight, at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus. Call (609) 258-5155 or visit for tickets and further information.

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