On Friday night, The Collaborative Theatre Co. (“Collaborative”) and Fells Point Corner Theatre (“FPCT”) opened the 2016-2017 theatrical season with their co-production of Bernard Pomerance’s classic, The Elephant Man, directed by Anthony Lane Hinkle. The play, based on the real life of John Merrick, illustrates how acts of kindness and compassion can elevate a person from a life of degradation and victimization to one of dignity and safety. It is a fitting production to kick off FPCT’s 2016-2017 theme, “Rescue Me.” The leitmotif of this season is to “celebrate our capabilities, our vulnerabilities, and the challenges of being human, together” – a particularly welcome message in times such as these.
John Merrick was a man who lived in London at the end of the nineteenth century. Merrick suffered from various bone and skin conditions that left him deformed and disabled. The Victorian era was in many ways a cruel time, and much of Merrick’s life was riddled with physical abuse, mockery and humiliation. After years of torment at workhouses, he became a central attraction in the dehumanizing world of freak shows. After eventually being abandoned by his handler, it was Merrick’s good fortune to capture the interest of a compassionate young doctor named Frederick Treves. The Elephant Man is the story of Merrick’s time under Treves’ care.
Grayson Owen was excellent in the role of the beleaguered title character, John Merrick. Using no prosthetics or dramatic make-up effects, Owen took on Merrick’s physical afflictions entirely through manipulation of his body. At the beginning of the play, Owen stood with his back to the audience as Merrick’s physical misfortunes were enumerated. As each disfigurement was described, Owen embodied it: hunched back, deformed arm, non-functioning leg, twisted fingers on an unusable hand.
Owen maintained these physically taxing characteristics consistently throughout the play, without even the short breaks of scene changes. On stage for practically the entire show; Owen remained in character while sets changed over between scenes, slowly moving his transformed body into place for the next chapter. Coupled with his skillful use of his voice and his audible, labored breathing, the overall effect was more powerful than if he’d spent hours with artists applying make-up and prostheses.
Sean Coe’s portrayal of Frederick Treves, Merrick’s rescuer, physician, protector and advocate, was measured and nuanced. In juxtaposition to Merrick’s crookedness, Treves was straight and upright, both physically and figuratively. Coe skillfully expressed not only Treves’ compassion and decency – somewhat radical for their time – but also the ways in which Treves himself was confined to a society whose old ways of thought and action were as ill-fitting as Merrick’s piteous body was to him.
Frank Mancini showed impressive range playing several roles ranging from Merrick’s freak show handler, Ross, to the toadying Bishop Walsham How. As believable as an amoral carnival barker as he was as a skittish servant, Mancini was an asset to every scene in which he appeared.
Mark Scharf played hospital administrator Carr Gomm with the poise of a proper English gentleman, as well as playing the helpful Conductor. Elizabeth Ung played three disparate characters with quite different backgrounds; she was frenetic as one half of the Pinhead freak show attraction, haughty and self-satisfied as the overly self-confident Nurse Sandwich, and prim as the Duchess who welcomed Merrick into polite society.
Aladrian Wetzel played the other half of the Pinhead act, but also – and more prominently – she portrayed Mrs. Kendal, a famous Shakespearean actress of the day whose broad stage presence showed in her interactions with Treves and Merrick. I would have liked it if Wetzel’s third role, that of the Countess, was more easily discernable from her primary role as Mrs. Kendal. Though the two characters have very different relationships with Merrick, the similarity of costume and Wetzel’s distinct voice made it difficult to initially identify the Countess in the Christmas scene.
Newcomer Darius Foreman rounded out the cast in the roles of London Policemen, Porter, and Lord John. I found some of his dialogue challenging to understand, but as he gains more experience throughout the run, I believe his work will become even better.
Set and Lighting Designer Kel Millionie created a physical world marked by his signature combination of visual beauty and clever functionality. The Victorian-era set was lovely and conveyed both space and time handily. It hid many surprises, though. A panels suggesting a large, stately portrait easily swung out to reveal a tawdry freak show announcement; others, below an elevated hallway, contained large set pieces like a bathtub and a bedroom suite. These ingenious panels made set changes quick, physically transforming the main stage space into distinct rooms and environments. The lighting, which played off the textured wall treatments to create a variety of moods, felt natural and supported each scene without being distracting.
Costume Designer Ben Kress was tasked with making costumes that ranged from filthy freak show rags to the elegant garb of the Victorian aristocracy and he did so with aplomb. Also notable was the splendid, floor length dress that Shelley Steffens Joyce created for the elegant Mrs. Kendal. Period-appropriate with a proper bustle and detailed stitching and decoration, this dress was gorgeous.
Director/Set Dresser Anthony Lane Hinkle and Properties Artisan Julia Folkart populated the world Millionie created with all the accoutrements of Victorian living. These additions fleshed out the set beautifully, lending each scene the tangible items that made the overall set feel even more like a peek at a real life experience.
In The Elephant Man, The Collaborative Theatre Company and Fells Point Corner Theatre have successfully co-produced a classic, true-life tale that depicts both the best and worst of humanity. Presented with nuanced acting, directorial sensitivity, lovely costumes and a set that elegantly combines beauty and functionality, this production of Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man deserves a spot on your September viewing schedule.
Running Time: Approximately two hours, including an intermission.
The Elephant Man plays through October 2, 2016 at The Collaborative Theatre Co. performing at Fells Point Corner Theatre – 251 South Ann Street, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, purchase them at the door or online.