He Is Not An Animal! :: Jim Petosa Talks ’The Elephant Man’

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Wednesday September 4, 2013

The New Repertory Theatre kicks off its 30th season with a boldly political play that's all too relevant to our times.

"The idea of doing the play came to life for me about a year ago, when the House of Representatives, for the umpteenth time, cast a vote to repeal the Affordable Health Care Act," director Jim Petosa said of the decision to stage the 1977 Bernard Pomerance play "The Elephant Man."

"I saw that this issue was not going to go away, and the campaign was so polarizing around health care, and it's still so polarizing today even after the general elections," Petosa continued. "I just thought, 'You know, it is time for us to revisit this play, to use it as a touchstone into this larger conversation."

The play is quite a different animal, if you will, from the much-acclaimed David Lynch film from 1980, in which John Hurt portrayed the titular character, John Merrick, dubbed the "Elephant Man" due to his physical deformities. The play and film were based on a real individual of that name, who lived from 1862 - 1890, an Englishman who went from rejection to social notoriety. The play hews close to the historical record in general terms; indeed, the script includes lines of dialogue spoken by a physician, Dr. Frederick Treves, who offers a clinical and quite graphic description of Merrick's physical condition. The dialogue matches photos of the historical Merrick.

But the script also, remarkably enough, stipulates that the actor playing Merrick should indicate the character's deformities through movement and posture, rather than relying on any sort of prosthetics or makeup.

Petosa addressed this point, saying, "Playing the role is damn hard, because your body is in a constant state of contortion. It’s the most uncomfortable two hours of an actor’s life. But that tension and that contortion through which the character must play is where the pathos and real compelling nature of the characterization comes from. Any kind of external prosthetic would probably be interesting from a technical point of view, and certainly make us gape at some extraordinary accomplishments in creating an illusion, but I think that would totally take away the power of what makes it theater."

All of which leads to the question: What was Petosa looking for in an actor? A mime? A gymnast? Nothing so literal in terms of conveying, through physical suggestion alone, Merrick’s extreme physical deformities.

Rather than seeking a contortionist, Petosa wanted "An actor with extraordinary physical commitment and willingness; incredible generosity; a kind of inherent vulnerability to his character that can make in his depiction of Merrick in finding the truth of that character."

Moreover, because Merrick was unable to communicate easily, Petosa needed someone who could deliver his lines in a way that also suggested intelligence challenged by the circumstances of its embodiment. He thus sought an actor capable of "a certain amount of linguistic skill in terms of being able to interpret lines; an authenticity in terms of notes and rhythms, because that’s a big skill you need in order to pull off this role.

"And a fearlessness, too -- someone who’s willing to put himself in the physical distress of the preparation," the director added. "We’re rehearsing seven-hour days. The two hours of each performance are gong to be somewhat easier in comparison!’

Merrick is played by Tim Spears, who returns to the New Rep after roles in "Amadeus" last season and "Mister Roberts" a few years ago. Spears has also performed in "House," "A Question of Mercy," and "The Devil’s Teacup," among other productions around Boston with various companies.

"I have a long history of working with Tim, and it is a role that I have thought he should play for some time," Petosa went on to say.

The play is essentially about two characters: Merrick, and Treves, who attempted to ease his suffering. Petosa pointed out that though the play is named for Merrick, it’s really more about Treves and the journey he takes. Michael Kaye plays the good doctor; like Spears, Kaye is an alum of "Amadeus" with the New Rep, as well as New Rep productions "House with No Walls," "Opus," and "Silence." He’s also performed in "Clybourne Park," "Glass Menagerie," and "Book of Days."

"For that part, we needed to find [an actor with] the right degree of... I want to say tight-assedness, but... " Petosa cracked up. Recovering, the director went on to complete his thought: "Someone who is certainly seeking to participate in the society as a standup guy. Someone who is rising according to the rules of society.

"Treves is not a rebel," Petosa added. "Treves is someone who wants to work within the system and distinguish himself within the system, and he succeeds -- not as a rebel, but as a conforming, productive citizen and professional. As a person who is rising in that regard, he rises quite positively in his care of John Merrick. He becomes the toast of the town, and he begins to become corrupted by that success and lives to see his own tragic fall when the Elephant Man does in fact die no better off than he was when he started -- physically, that is, but certainly better off in terms of how he has been treated as the mascot of London society.

"Treves is a complex character, and Michael was great at finding that internal conflict between the good man confronting actions that overtake him over a period of time and finding that moment of recognition as to how the moral conundrum has affected him negatively. Michael does beautiful work that way. In the past he’s played everything from Victor Frankenstein in ’Monster’ to John Halter in ’Good’ -- two more plays in which Spears, also, appeared -- "and all these characters are of a piece. They are very different in terms of their acting demands, but in their soul they share something essential."

From the start, Petosa felt solid about his cast. "Knowing that I had Tim, and Michael Kaye was not far behind, that felt like a real strong base to move forward with this play," he told EDGE. "I felt like the universe was conspiring in a positive way to say, ’Yeah, let’s put this thing up.’ We’re at the end of the second week of rehearsal and having a ball. The thing is going beautifully. We all feel quite good about it."

Getting back to the subject of the play’s political resonance with today’s fractious debate over health care, Petosa offered his thoughts on how the two relate.

"From my perspective on the play, it really goes back to 19th Century, Victorian England, and the start of the notion that people just deserve to be treated," the director said, adding that another emergent notion in the late 1800 was the idea "that science had a role to play in treating people with ailments.

"Questions about, ’Is [Merrick] an interesting candidate for study? Is he an interesting candidate for research?’ turn into, ’What do we owe this human being, if anything, other than a life of bare survival in a freak show which becomes a cultural economic strata that allows the freaks of society and those who are also afflicted, but become the keepers of the freaks to create, in contemporary terms, an ’inner city economy’ that pays them a minimal subsistence?’ "

By this, Petosa is referring to the play’s context, taken from real life, in which Merrick hired another man to serve as a sort of promoter -- essentially a sideshow manager, with Merrick himself as the main attraction. As in life, the play details how the police shut down this operation, thus preserving the delicate sensibilities of the public but costing Merrick his meager livelihood. Luckily, Treves stepped in at this point and helped secure Merrick a stable situation at the London Hospital, with his financial security enabled by charitable contributions from the well-heeled.

"What happens with John Merrick is, when he is brought to the hospital his exterior is so horrific that it puts into relief the attractiveness of his character because he’s smart, he’s witty, he’s unexpectedly observant," Petosa clarified. "People of means begin to become attracted to him. He rises from the depths of the freak show to become a different kind of exhibitionist, and he learns to survive through the charity of people who feel quite good in taking care of him. But he only earns that right because he happens to have attributes that make him attractive and appealing to those people, who then decide that he warrants their largesse -- whereas others certainly do not. You don’t see the people in this play who provide for Merrick becoming at all enthralled by the notion of providing for people who have similar histories to Merrick."

Merrick sounds like nothing so much as the Victorian Era’s equivalent to a reality show celebrity.

"Absolutely!’ Petosa exclaimed. "We become fascinated by his singular nature, and what is grotesque about him becomes part of the package of what makes him alluring. The doctor realizes that he is participating in a societal game in which everybody sees reflected in the Elephant Man an image of their own vulnerability, their own condition. The notion of actually healing people becomes secondary to this positively reinforced act that the people who give to Merrick are actually taking much more from him.

"Now, I think you take that and you put it into 21st century terms, with where we are, and it’s easy to look back at these Victorians and cluck at their basic understandings and yearnings, and it’s easy to judge them harshly, but when you look at the debate over healthcare that we continued to have -- even after passing the legislation -- we are not that far afield from them in terms of our decision as a society on the question of whether health care is a basic right that people can expect, or whether it remains a privilege for those who can afford it," Petosa went on. "It seems to me, from this debate, that we’re nowhere near arriving at a conclusion. It’s as polarizing as issues of pro-choice versus abortion rights. It becomes defining. Which side of the spectrum you’re on is based on your take on the so-called ’Obamacare.’ "

So will audiences come away from this play having had their capacity for empathy enlarged?

"I don’t see how this play can leave you unscathed," the director said. "The only people who might leave this play [the same as they were when they walked in] are those who are too cynical to allow themselves to be touched by it, or those who might want to cover the experience up and say it’s emotionally manipulative. I don’t find it to be that way at all. It’s deeply compelling; it’s clear at its attempt at being a modern tragedy; it has enough to offer in the tradition of Arthur Miller to get us into some profound questions while at the same time connecting us in an emotional way to a human story that is impossible not to be touched by. I find it a really worthy and enduring piece of theater."

’The Elephant Man’ plays September 7 through 29 in the Charles Mosesian Theater at the Arsenal Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal Street, in Watertown, MA. Tickets are $28-$60 and may be purchased by calling the box office at 617-923-8487 or online at newrep.org

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.