Prime Stage has a major assignment in producing Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man, given the mission of appealing to and educating students and families. The intelligent, highly original play is complex and deals with complicated themes. Most of the essentials come across clearly directed by Rich Keitel. And actor Sean Sears gives a touching, perceptive performance in the title role enhancing the best aspects of the play.
This concerns actual events during six years in late 19th Century London centering on horribly disfigured John Merrick. After being displayed in carnival freak shows, he was rescued, treated and studied by surgeon Frederick Treves. Merrick, confined to a hospital for his own well- being, became something of a celebrity, no doubt due to the fact that he was discovered to be intelligent and articulate.
Regarding student audiences, Merrick’s story could be inspiring since one point can be that that even deformed, odd-looking and handicapped people have something worth cherishing and admiring despite outward appearances. Pomerance actually says much more than that, something perhaps not readily apparent even to adults in these performances.
Visually staging The Elephant Man, as if in a circus, giving the title double meaning, Keitel has a very imaginative way to underscore Pomerance’s equal point that nearly everyone connected to Merrick seeks to exploit him as if he were a creature rather than a complete human being within such a disturbing body.
London Hospital administrator Carr Gomm and Bishop How have their own agenda regarding Merrick and, as Merrick becomes famous, members of the upper class seek to enhance their standing by meeting him. I found this aspect of the script not clear enough in Keitel’s direction.
Keitel and actor Justin Fortunato as Treves do make meaningful how Treves treats Merrick as if neither intelligent nor capable of knowing what’s best for himself. As the play progresses they also capably show that Treves himself is crippled by his own imperfections.
Sears’ performance as Merrick does a lot to make that man’s story moving and convincing while most other actors convey the basics of the rest of the characters.
Given the circus concept, Keitel sits his audience in the round. Yet almost all the playing faces downstage front rather than all around the space as it would be in real circus. Given the use of English accents and vocabulary, this could make it difficult for some audiences, especially young ones, to follow what’s being said, if seated behind most of the scenes. As another alternative to the downstage focus, Keitel could have achieved more clarity by having much of the dialogue upstage.
Pomerance’s script says a lot and says it well. Unfortunately there is nothing about him in the program book, another instance of a producing company ignoring the source of what they offer, characteristic of non-professional groups. But Prime Stage is professional and this looks especially wrong given its goal of educating young people.
According to Wikipedia, Brooklyn-born Pomerance is both a playwright and a poet. After studying at the University of Chicago,he moved to London when he was 28. His first play, High in Vietnam, Hot Damn was performed there and he co-founded a theatre company Foco Novo in 1972 for which he adapted a new version of Bertold Brecht’s A Man’s A Man. Several of Pomerance’s plays take politically weighted views of American history such as Quantrill in Lawrence and Melons. As for The Elephant Man,it was performed in repertory at Britain’s National Theatre plus several times off and on Broadway. The 1979 Broadway production won the Tony Award for best play plus two Tonys and ran for more than two years. It was also made into a film for television with the original cast.
You need to know that I auditioned for roles in this production. But I don’t take personally not being cast, given past experience as a professional actor. In fact, I’m not convinced I would have been a better choice for those roles and the First Stage performers do look right.
The Elephant Man continues through March 4th at The New Hazlett Theater at Allegheny Square on the North Side. Tickets are at ProArts 412/ 394-3353 and further information is at www.primestage.com