Theatre review: Shakespeare, compassion and artifice in “The Elephant Man”

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Courtesy of Nadine Howatt
“The Elephant Man,” the latest show from the Resident Ensemble Players, tells a compelling true story.

BY
MANAGING MOSAIC EDITOR

“The Elephant Man,” playing now at the Resident Ensemble Players’ Thompson Theater, packs a great deal of meaning into just 90 minutes — and that’s a good thing. To me, a great show won’t just make me laugh or cry (preferably both) as I watch, it’s one that will also give me something to think about after the actors have taken their bows.

“The Elephant Man” tells the story of John Merrick, based on the life of Joseph Merrick, whose severe deformities not only limited his movements and altered his life, but also made him an outcast in 19th-century London. Playwright Bernard Pomerance dictated that the actor portraying Merrick should not be outfitted with effects to change his appearance, so REP actor Michael Gotch brings Merrick to life in part by contorting his limbs and features. This gives viewers an understanding of Merrick’s condition that they might not gain with the distraction of heavy makeup or prosthetic effects.

The play, based on a true story, begins with Merrick making a small living as a sort of sideshow act. When his manager abandons him, shipping him off to London, he reconnects with a physician, Dr. Treves, who had previously examined him in a London hospital. Treves, played by Mic Matarrese, gives Merrick a safe place to stay and aims to integrate the so-called “Elephant Man” into British high society. In one of Treves and Merrick’s earliest interactions, Matarrese volleys perfectly between contradicting statements and tones: Treves shows compassion for Merrick, but also sets paternalistic restrictions, as though he knows what is best for Merrick because he happens to occupy a higher place in society. At their conversation’s end, it seems everything will be alright for Merrick from then on…if he behaves as society expects.

Merrick, through his own ambition to be “normal,” as well as through exposure to royalty and other members of the upper crust, is able to conform to the hospital staff’s expectations. Rather than coming off as unaware or naive, Gotch’s portrayal shows the audience that Merrick is playing society’s game because he wants to, because he sees some benefit there — at least initially.

The show is moving: at times sad, often critical of how those who are “different” are treated, but sometimes humorous. Still, the scenes between Gotch and actress Elizabeth Heflin stand out in this production, highlighting the humanity of both characters. Heflin plays Mrs. Kendal, an actress who initially approaches her meeting with Merrick like she will be performing a favor, making an effort to humor him and act as if she does not notice his differences. Things change quickly as the pair read from a book of Shakespeare plays and discuss the shallowness of Romeo in “Romeo and Juliet”; Kendal begins to see Merrick not as the Elephant Man, but as a warm, intelligent person. This is one of the first scenes in which the audience gets to spend any sort of time with the real Merrick, the one who’s not trying to prove himself — and it’s difficult not to find him endearing. Heflin communicates so many different emotions with the smallest shifts of her expression or in the tone of her voice, bringing both charm and depth to the character who brings Merrick out of his shell.

It is telling that among the parade of Merrick’s visitors and admirers, only one character touches Merrick in a social rather than medical context: Mrs. Kendal. As their friendship grows, they develop a camaraderie and an honest rapport that isn’t seen elsewhere in the play. It is in his relationship with Kendal that Merrick begins to see the artifice and insincerity that govern the lives of those whose society he has joined. It is both sad and intriguing to watch Merrick’s illusions fall away in favor of clarity, and audiences are sure to find the show as compelling as it is bittersweet.

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