The Elephant Man

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Monday September 16, 2013

Tim Spears portrays John Merrick in The New Repertory Theater’s production of ’The Elephant Man,’ continuing through Sept. 29
Tim Spears portrays John Merrick in The New Repertory Theater’s production of ’The Elephant Man,’ continuing through Sept. 29  (Source:Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)

The David Lynch movie version of Bernard Pomerance's play "The Elephant Man" relies on John Hurt's performance and some fairly detailed prosthetics. The film also featured a heavy hood, the folds and lumps of which sort of suggested a trunk might be lurking underneath.

In point of fact, the stage play tells us, it was not the resemblance of Joseph "John" Merrick's misshapen limbs to elephantitis that gave Merrick his moniker, but his mother having been knocked down by a circus elephant when she was pregnant with him. Merrick had no trunk, nor tusks, and didn't really resemble an elephant at all; the Internet offers a number of photos of the man, and while his body is deformed and distorted, he is not, perhaps, as terrifying or disgusting to the modern eye as the characters in this play, which is set in the Victorian age, take him to be.

Pomerance doesn't give us an opening to debate whether the character of John Merrick in his play based on Merrick's life is really so frightening or disturbing to behold. The script's directions specify that the actor should mimic Merrick's disfigurement, but not be outfitted with any special prosthetics. The play allows our imaginations to do the work of creating Merrick (played by Tim Spears in this production) as someone who outwardly seemed monstrous; we're aided in this by a verbal description of Merrick delivered by a rising doctor of anatomy, a Mr. Frederick Treves (Michael Kaye), who is associated with London Hospital.

Tim Spears and Michael Kaye as Merrick and Treves
Tim Spears and Michael Kaye as Merrick and Treves  (Source: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)

Treves’ clinical detailing of Merrick’s physical state comes back to haunt the doctor later on, as he struggles with a sense that his own soul is becoming misshapen and corrupt. In part, Treves’ anxieties arise because he feels that he should be able to do something to alleviate the bodily torments of Merrick’s affliction. As it is, Treves proves instrumental in alleviating Merrick’s social isolation, elevating him from pariah to celebrity and giving him the chance to exercise his not-inconsiderable intellectual gifts.

Beauty being in the eye of the beholder, London society begins to see Merrick as acceptable, even beautiful, once the individuals who belong to the upper social circles start to project themselves onto him and see themselves in Merrick -- in his intelligence, his fortitude, his forbearance, his sympathy for others, his lack of bitterness regarding his own condition. But Merrick himself may not be the saintly and mild presence he’s taken to be; rather, he’s opinionated, uncompromising, and hard to hoodwink-- whether by the kind of swindler with whom he once worked, or by Treves’ own buttoned-up Victorian mores, a code of ethics as harmful to the spirit, arguably, as are the corsets Treves despairs to see slowly deforming the bodies of young women.

This production’s stripped-down staging puts the focus solidly on Pomerance’s beautifully written script. Jon Savage’s minimal scenic design is dominated by two tall sliding doors, evocative of just about any institution they need to be, whether scientific, religious, or otherwise. A lone oboist provides much of the production’s music (though for some reason he is stationed right up at the edge of the stage, in his own mini-orchestra pit). Spears himself personifies the sparseness inherent in the play’s sensibilities, though the uncomfortable posture he adopts to communicate Merrick’s disfigurement looks -- to my eye -- less like someone with Merrick’s afflictions than a miming of someone with cerebral palsy. (That may be my own example of projection, though, since I have a younger sibling with cerebral palsy.)

Tim Spears and Merrick and Valerie Leonard as Mrs. Kendall
Tim Spears and Merrick and Valerie Leonard as Mrs. Kendall  (Source: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)

If the broader elements of the production are left mostly to our imaginations, the more specific elements such as costuming (the work of Molly Trainer) and lighting (by Daniel MacLean Wagner) are seen to handsomely. (David Reiffel does his usual effective work on the sound design, though the whooshing, moaning sound effects he sometimes employs seem a little wrong for the tone and the period.)

In terms of performance, Valerie Leonard seems the freest and most expressive of the cast; when she takes to the stage it’s like a spotlight of color and vibrancy. Her character, the actress Mrs. Kendall, is given lease to be colorful and effusive, and even a little scandalous. Hers is the quicksilver temperament of the free thinker that Treves and Merrick, for different reasons, are not able to attain: Spears and Kaye often seem a little constrained, as though biting back on their passions. There is an argument or two between the men, charged both with mutual affection and dependency, and in these passages there’s a glow of some real heat. Overall, the Victorian age (and the contrasting failures of flesh and spirit) seem to be weighing the performers down.

The balance to strike here is what to show versus what to suggest; in this, director Jim Petosa succeeds. There’s a great deal of darkness in this play, but Petosa allows glints of light to jump out to startle and engage.

’The Elephant Man’ continues through Sept. 29 at Charles Mosesian Theater at the Arsenal for the Arts in Watertown. For tickets and more information, please visit www.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.