0n Thursday, Friday and Saturday, February 22, 23 and 24, 2018, at the SPI Convention Center, El Paseo Arts joins an elite group of local theatre companies who have dared to bring The Elephant Man to the stage. The production demands of The Elephant Man make it difficult to produce, but El Paseo Arts has proudly accepted the challenge, not only because of the quality of the writing and the story, but because of the acting from this cast that makes it a show that is “not to be missed”. The Elephant Man premiered on Broadway in 1979 and won the Tony Award, Drama Desk Award, and NY Drama Critics’ Award for best play. It was revived successfully on Broadway in 2002 and in 2014-15, and has been around long enough to be considered a modern classic.
The title role of The Elephant Man, John Merrick, is one of the iconic roles in modern theatre and one of the most challenging roles any actor can undertake. To play Merrick, an actor must have the emotional depth of understanding to capture an abused misfit and the physical ability to transform himself through demanding contortions in order to believably portray this historic figure. In Bernard Pomerance’s play, unlike in the David Lynch film of the story, the actor is not made up or fitted with any prosthetics to simulate the character’s physicality. Instead, as a doctor clinically describes Merrick, using photos about the man’s oversized head, misshapen arm, deformed body and painful, limping gait, the actor slowly changes his stance, contorts his face and cranks his torso in a way that’s hard to imagine doing momentarily, let alone sustaining it for the duration of a 90 minute play. The actor must also employ a voice that seems to emerge from within the tortured body, at first muffled and hard to decipher but increasingly clear and insightful. El Paseo Arts is fortunate to have such a talented actor for the role. Will Everett, who played Merrick in the Camille playhouse’s 2006 production of The Elephant Man, will re-create his amazing and acclaimed performance.
The Elephant Man is based on the real-life experiences of John Merrick, who lived from 1862-1890. The play is divided into twenty-one scenes that depict the last six years of Merrick’s life. Merrick suffered from a disease that caused extreme disfigurement to his face and body due to growths on his bones, and resulted in his being showcased as a sideshow “freak” attraction by his manager, Ross, played by Frank Shisler. When Merrick is abandoned by Ross, he is rescued by Frederick Treves (played by Danny Dollar), a young doctor who discovers that behind the disfigured visage, lies not an animal, but an intelligent mind and a sensitive soul. Treves endeavors to show the world to Merrick; however, Merrick discovers that this “new world” is both more beautiful and more cruel than he could have imagined.
Because of Merrick’s disfigurement, he has no friends. People are frightened and horrified by his appearance so Treves enlists the help of an actress, Mrs. Kendal, (played by Silvy Berman) to act like she is willing to be a friend to Merrick. Mrs. Kendal almost immediately recognizes that Merrick is a unique individual with a fine mind and a loving heart, and she makes it her mission to introduce Merrick to her friends among London nobility.
As Merrick’s life evolves from a sad existence as a carnival freak to a man visited by the royalty of 19th century London, he becomes more and more skeptical about the ways of the world and how “proper” people are expected to behave. When we first meet his mentor, Dr. Treves, the young doctor is a confident man with a firm grip on success in his profession and life, but as time passes, he wonders whether he has truly helped Merrick. Treves’ life seems to become less and less stable, while at the same time, Merrick demonstrates greater clarity and religious faith.
The story of Merrick’s final six years plays out in various locations – Whitechapel Hospital, London and Brussels fairgrounds, Brussels and a London train stations, and back to the hospital, in Merrick’s room or Dr. Treves’ office. Telling this story requires a cast of many characters and whether they have a large or small role, each actor plays an integral part. Bert Kinyon makes his El Paseo Arts debut as Dr. Carr Gomm, the hospital administrator who raises the donations to provide for Merrick’s care at the hospital. El Paseo veteran, Billie Reilly plays Bishop Thurston How, who becomes Merrick’s religious mentor. DeeOnda Ahadi plays two roles: Ms. Sandwich, an experienced missionary nurse and Princess Alexandria. Chelsea Pavliska, Andrea Wright and Linda Lee play the Pinheads, sideshow characters from the Belgian Congo, and Carlos Bringas plays their manager and the devious Lord John. Andy Reilly and Roin Khurami play hospital porters who care for Merrick. Richard Gavina plays a Belgian policeman; Greg Lockwood plays a London policeman, and Mark Shellard plays a train conductor. Visiting nobility includes Judy Brewer as the Countess, Marianne Kobie as the Duchess and Lucy Regalado as Lady Neville.
The evening of theatre at the SPI Convention Center begins at 6:30 P.M., with a complimentary light dessert and a cash bar. The curtain goes up on the show at 7:30 P.M. Tickets for the show are $30 per person/ $25 per person for El Paseo Arts members. Tickets are available for purchase at Paragraphs Book Store, S.O.S., PadreRitaGrill, the Art Gallery in Lighthouse Square, and online at http://www.elpaseoarts.org.
The Elephant Man raises questions that are still relevant today. What is considered beautiful? What is considered ugly? Do we still judge people by appearances? How do we treat others who look different from us? Do we look away? Are we frightened? The Elephant Man asks us to look into each other’s soul and see the true spirit located inside. As the real John Merrick wrote in one of his poems:
If I could reach from pole to pole
Or grasp the ocean with a span
It would be measured by the soul.
The mind’s the standard of the man.
From the talented cast to the period costumes, to the atmospheric lighting, beautiful cello music, and special effects, imagine The Elephant Man as a “mammoth theatrical experience” performed in El Paseo Arts’ intimate theatre venue at the Convention Center. However, ultimately it is the story of The Elephant Man that continues to draw audiences to see it. The play is a haunting masterpiece of compassion, beauty and ultimately, humanity.