“Sometimes I think my head is so big because it is so full of dreams,” John Merrick offers to an attractive visitor, one of the first women he ever encountered who did not recoil in horror at the sight of him.
The soul-bearing insights of a poetic spirit are revealed throughout Bernard Pomerance’s touching play about John Merrick, the former side show freak and the few remaining years at the end of his life when dignity was restored to his otherwise miserable and exploitative existence.
Merrick’s real story began in the Victorian era when he began developing profound physical deformities – thick and lumpy skin, a bony growth on his head, three out of four limbs enlarged, thick and protruding lips. Joseph – his real name – toiled in a Leicester workhouse before ending up as a side show attraction, billed as “the Elephant Man.” Pomerance’s play picks up the story when London physician and teacher Frederick Treves visits the freak show and encounters Merrick for the first time.
For the Maryland Ensemble Theatre production, Julie Herber uses the side-show trappings that were once Merrick’s habitat as atmosphere to allow the episodic scenes to blend smoothly into one another, nearly dancing from one scene to the next. She uses her gifted ensemble to create a dreamscape of contorted grotesques who each take their place along a cramped midway, hiding in little kiosk tents until taking on the myriad characters whose lives intersect with Mr. Merrick.
Playing the compassionate and conventional surgeon and lecturer, Freddie Treves, Jack Evans easily conveys the heart of a man who is struck by Merrick’s extreme deformities and touched by his intelligence and eloquence. Evans provides the grounded voice of science and medicine that rescues Merrick from side show squalor, represented by the greedy and gruff manager Ross (James McGarvey.) Treves receives the blessing of the London Hospital administrator, Francis Carr Gomm – a nice performance by Reiner Prochaska – who provides respite for Merrick from the prying eyes of paying customers.
Once Merrick is under Treves’ care at the hospital, there is, at last, hope for dignity and solace. He is befriended by Bishop How – also played by McGarvey – who finds Merrick hungry for God in his life. In fact, within Pomerance’s script, each major character who meets the Elephant Man sees part of their own nature reflected in Merrick’s deformed exterior.
One of the other profound relationships Merrick develops is with a celebrated actress, Mrs. Kendal, played with elan by Gené Fouché. At first, brought in by Treves to spend time with Merrick because she is an actress and is able to take on various roles, Mrs. Kendal’s revulsion of Merrick’s appearance is quickly replaced by fascination and even admiration. She sees beyond his beastly form and finds the prince buried within.
And then there is John Merrick, brought to life with poetic grace by Matthew Lee in a stunning physical and emotional performance that is the heart and soul of the play. As Treves describes Merrick’s condition in exacting detail, Lee transforms his body into a semblance of the misshapen wretch with only the actor’s basic tools of posture, gesture and expression. Lee’s voice has a gentle lilt that trickles out from his twisted lips, a perfect embodiment of the innocent soul surrounded by malformation. I found myself hanging on Merrick’s every word – a credit to both Pomerance’s text and Lee’s portrayal of the man himself.
The other members of the ensemble – Vanessa Strickland and Giovanni Kavota – join with Fouché, Prochaska, and McGarvey – in taking on the roles of every one from royalty to other side show denizens.
THE ELEPHANT MAN
April 10 – May 3
Maryland Ensemble Theatre (MET)
31 W Patrick Street
2 hours, 15 minutes with 1 intermission
Thursdays thru Sundays
Tickets or call 301-694-4744
Herber’s artistic collaborators turn MET’s theatre space into a living canvas for the poignant story to unfold. The simple tents and curtains of Joann Lee’s set design provide perfect avenues for the actors to traverse while allowing Paul Schillinger’s lighting design and Celia Lee’s evocative and kaleidoscopic projections to weave visual spells throughout the performance. The costumes, created with an eye for detail and flair by Stephanie Hyder, help pinpoint the late 19th Century time period while allowing the actors freedom of movement. The visual elements are further enhanced by the techno and new age soundscape provided by Steve Younkins sound design.
Impressions of MET’s production of The Elephant Man still linger: the moment when Merrick’s hand touched a woman’s hand for the first time, and he held his hand up to the light and slowly caressed it to his cheek; the dreamy Queens of the Congo turned queens of the cosmos dancing in Merrick’s dreams, helping him to lie down on his bed like a man not afflicted with an enlarged head are still clear in my mind; and Merrick’s voice, standing up to Ross for the first time, telling his old side show manager “I am not a dog walking on hind legs” anymore.
Herber, Lee and company have taken the Elephant Man once again out of the dark alleys of a freak show and placed him center stage with dignity where he belongs.
The Elephant Man by Bernard Pomerance . Directed by Julie Herber . Featuring Jack Evans, Gené Fouché, Giovanni Kavota, Matthew Lee, James McGarvey, Reiner Prochaska, Vanessa Strickland . Set Design: Joann Lee . Costume Design: Stephanie Hyder . Lighting Design: Paul Schillinger . Sound Designer: Steve Younkins . Props: Devin Gaither . Projections: Celia Lee . Dialect Coach: Eric Jones . Stage Manager Bailey Sterling, assisted by Bethanie Herman . Produced by Maryland Ensemble Theatre . Reviewed by Jeffrey Walker.