Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Elephant Man, CSU Summer Stages

(From left: Eric Perusek as Merrick, Geoff Knox as Treves, and Ursula Cataan as Mrs. Kendall)

In a perfect world, our external appearance would be shaped by the goodness we have inside. That would make it a lot easier to spot the real monsters in our midst. But then, who’s to decide what “goodness” is; Tea Partiers and devotees of Daily Kos might disagree mightily.

In a similar way, there are many layers at work in The Elephant Man by Bernard Pomerance, now at CSU Summer Stages. This is the story of John (real name Joseph) Merrick, a man burdened with morbid physical deformities but possessing a gentle and intelligent mind. And this CSU production under the direction of Everett Quinton gets virtually everything right, fashioning a drama that raises questions both simple and profound.

We first meet Merrick in the 1880s as a sideshow freak, and that’s where Dr. Frederick Treves finds him and takes the confused, misshapen man into his care at the London Hospital. Few can access Merrick’s beautiful side since his handicap prevents him from speaking clearly, and few would even have the nerve to come close enough to hear him.

Stage directions indicate that Merrick is to be played without elaborate makeup, as was done in the movie version, so the task of conveying Merrick’s extreme physical distress is left to the actor. Eric Perusek does an admirable job of contorting his body and face, allowing Merrick’s enormous and weighty head (it was ballooned out by bony growths and fleshy sacs) to loll to one side, then struggling to bring it upright again. Although these contortions aren’t entirely consistent throughout the play, Perusek does a splendid job of crafting a flawed yet empathetic character.

He is well supported by Geoff Knox, who plays Treves with a polished air of self-entitlement, a young physician on the make who has stumbled on a grotesque medical treasure. But his adherence to Victorian rules and behaviors are assailed, and Knox deftly reveals the conflicts besetting Treves.

In order to help humanize Merrick, Treves introduces Merrick to the beauteous actress Mrs. Kendall (a pitch-perfect and riveting Ursula Cataan). After perusing photos of the naked Merrick provided by the doc, she first notices that Merrick’s junk is in fine shape. And later, she shares a glimpse of some of her secondary sexual characteristics, much to Merrick’s delight and Treves’ outrage. Also excellent are Tom Woodward as the sideshow manager Ross, Derek Davidson as the Bishop, and George Roth as Carr Gomm, the head of the hospital.

Although there are a couple small glitches—the supposed moronic trio of pinheads seem more like three gals in a ladies golf league costumed for an outing—the tone of the production is strong and consistent. This is aided by the moody, between-scenes cello music performed by Maake Harding.

As Merrick insinuates himself into society, being gifted and visited by the upper crust, we see hypocrites and celebrity suck-ups for what they are. And it makes us wonder about how we perceive beauty and the real value of other human beings. That’s a lot for any play to deliver, and this CSU Summer Stages production does it with well-modulated passion.

The Elephant Man

Through August 15 at CSU Summer Stages,

CSU Factory Theatre, corner of Chester and E. 23 St.,


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