The Elephant Man, fantastically directed by Julie Herber, poses some interesting morality questions for a modern audience, though it is set in Victorian-era England. Based on a real-life story, The Elephant Man is a dramatized account of the life of The Elephant Man, changed in the show to John Merrick). Merrick was horribly deformed, born with a rare bone and skin disease which made his head and one arm twice the size of a normal man’s (leading to the cruel but physically accurate stage name “The Elephant Man”). He is forced into life as a traveling carnival attraction and after being abandoned by the cruel owner, he is found by Dr. Frederick Treves and admitted into one of London’s best hospitals. Dr. Treves agrees to let Merrick live in the hospital and as Merrick is treated, his intelligence and compassion slowly begin to shine through. Merrick is introduced to members of high society, who visit out of pity, but the unique circumstances leave both the doctor and patient struggling with the moral consequences of what it actually means to be “normal” or “deformed” in our society.
Matthew Lee in the title role as deformed man John Merrick was fantastic. As the show is traditionally staged, no prosthetics or makeup of any kind are used to display Merrick’s extreme deformities. Lee was responsible for physically transforming his face and body to resemble a grotesque combination with very few offstage breaks for two hours and more than rose to the occasion. His character vocal quality and speech impediment was a perfect combination, yet the audience could still clearly make out all of his lines (many of which were brilliantly delivered one-liners to highlight Merrick’s clear intelligence). His monologue in Act II, deeply dark and directed at his former carnival owner, was phenomenal and one of the best moments of the production.
As the “normal” scientist and man responsible for changing Merrick’s life, Jack Evans gives a strong performance as Dr. Frederick Treves. He allows the humility and sincerity of the good-hearted man to shine through in Act I, but reveals a darker hidden depth to the character in Act II as his rigid views of normality and morality are challenged. His emotional breakdown near then end of Act II when he realizes that sometimes scientific knowledge fails to help the human condition was extremely powerful.
The ensemble of five impressively played a wide variety of roles. Gene Fouche was superb playing actress Mrs. Kendal, the first woman and member of society to be truly affectionate to Merrick. A standout comedic moment occurred between Fouche and Evans in Act I when Fouche inquired if the deformity also affected the size of Merrick’s sexual instrument. Evans was delightfully awkward and Fouche was deliciously frank.
James McGarvey was fantastically versatile in his dual roles as Ross, Merrick’s greedy, low-class carnival owner and Bishop How, a kind-hearted, merciful clergymen who advises Merrick. The transition was extremely evident in two scenes in Act II when McGarvey made the transition in a matter of minutes.
Vanessa Strickland demonstrated a great variety of character voices, including her impressive Irish dialect as nurse Miss Sandwich and saccharine trill as Princess Alexandra and the Duchess. Giovanni Kavota was both intimidating as a menacing carnival Pinhead Manager and sweetly concerned as hospital worker Snork. Reiner Prochaska was outstanding as the hospital administrator Carr Gomm and his monologue in the last moments of the show where he read a letter aloud summarizing the events of Merrick’s story was particularly moving.
Both the scenic design and lighting design for the production were spectacular. The set, designed by Joann Lee, featured six narrow, vertical white stage tents surrounding platforms, reminiscent of tents to feature exhibits at a carnival show. The actors frequently used the platforms for entrances and exits and drew the tent curtains to display silhouettes in interpretive dance sequences and at certain points, to transform from one character to another. The lighting design and projections, designed by Paul Shillinger and Celia Lee, were truly the most impressive technical feature of the show. The projections transformed with each scene change to feature different patterns and color schemes and occasionally incorporated various historical images relevant to the scene.
Costumes, designed by Stephanie Hyder, nicely highlighted the theme of the show. Each actor started the show in period appropriate undergarments and gradually added costume pieces as they morphed into their character. John Merrick’s costume plot was exceedingly detailed. As the show went on and more of his human intelligence and characteristics shone through, layers of clothing were added in each scene. He began the show wearing boxer shorts and was clothed in a three-piece suit by the final scene.
For powerful performances by a gifted cast, be sure to see The Elephant Man at the Maryland Ensemble Theatre.
Running Time: 2 hours with one 15 -minute intermission.