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Theater Review: The Elephant Man

PC: Jack Grace
The first time I ever heard of John Merrick, the so-called “Elephant Man,” it was through a rumor involving Michael Jackson. At some point in the late 1980’s, when Jackson was the undisputed “King of Pop” and probably the most beloved entertainer in the world, a report surfaced that he purchased Merrick’s bones. Why? Allegedly because of how Jackson empathized with Merrick and shared his feeling of being an outsider whose appearance evoked a strong reaction from strangers. I probably first read this in a supermarket checkout aisle, being hounded by a National Enquirer headline while my Mother paid for groceries. I don’t know if this “news article” on Jackson’s connection to Merrick is true but it introduced me to the story of Merrick (and to the notion that, while a brilliant entertainer, Jackson may have been a tad unusual).

I later discovered that the Makawao Library carried a book on Merrick. I read it and was especially taken by the insert photographs, showing Merrick’s remarkable deformities in vivid detail. One picture was even colorized, giving me the clearest idea of what it was like to look at him and be in his company. I discovered that Merrick was afflicted with a deformity  that caused his head to appear swollen in unimaginable ways. He spent most of his life adapting to it and being treated cruelly by nearly every person he encountered. The photograph of him in “color” had the same quality of all the others: despite how extensive and shocking his deformed head was, it was his eyes I couldn’t stop looking at. It was all in his eyes: there was a man under there.

PC: Jack Grace

Merrick, a tender, long suffering soul whose friendship with the sympathetic Dr. Treves allowed society to view him in a different light, died at the age of 27. I mention all of this for a reason: Merrick’s story, which I first encountered as a 4th grader, burrowed its way into my mind and never left. His story is a lesson on how kindness can change the recipient as well as the giver. As interpreted in theater, the very venue that once exploited Merrick as a “freak show” attraction, Merrick’s painful journey in the 1880’s became the basis of the late playwright Bernard Pomerance’s tribute to his life.

The Sally Sefton-directed production of Pomerance’s “The Elephant Man” playing at the Kihei ProArts Theater is, to get right to it, as good as you’d hope. The attention to detail, both physical and internalized, is exemplary from both the performers and the production design. You couldn’t ask for a better production.

PC: Jack Grace

Ricky Jones plays Merrick, who we meet as an exploited, defeated individual who patrons pay to gaze at then run from screaming. Francis Taua plays Treves, who less disturbed by Merrick’s visage and more disgusted with the ailing health and the daily cruelties he absorbed. While living under Treves’ care in a hospital, Merrick is looked after and given the opportunity to live, speak and think like a human being. Merrick’s startling wit even wins over the hospital workers who were initially terrified of him. A pivotal relationship forms when Treves enlists an actress, Mrs. Kendal (played by Hoku Pavao),to befriend Merrick and teach him the etiquette of being in the company of women. As Merrick’s reawakening blossoms, he creates a massive model of a church that grows as his life crawls to an end.

The 1980 David Lynch film (which isn’t an adaptation of Pomerance’s play) is excellent, though I’ve only been able to sit through it twice. Pomerance’s dramatization (which portrays the physical brutality inflicted on Merrick far less infrequently than the film did) does something crucial that the film version does not: the actor playing Merrick is instructed to affect his speech and misshapen stance but not wear make-up. Jones’ physical commitment is impressive but, more importantly, he allows us to see the beaten down soul within Merrick. If you’ve seen Jones on stage in the past few years, you’re aware that he’s on a roll as an actor, creatively tapping into characters that are wildly dissimilar. His work here is extraordinary.

PC: Jack Grace

Taua is, likewise, so consistently excellent in everything he’s in, it feels redundant to point this out yet again. That said, a special quality to his work that is especially noticeable here: he gives so much to the role, wrestling with Treves’ inner life and contradictions, yet doesn’t seem to be acting. Taua is brilliant in finding the honesty of any part he’s assigned.

The role of Mrs. Kendal presents a potential gimmick: here’s Pavao, a great actress, playing a great actress, who initially uses her stage training to guard her from reacting to Merrick’s appearance. A common trait in Pavao’s work present here: she presents an initially colorful, sealed-off character and shows us the layers beneath.

PC: Jack Grace

The three leads are splendid and are given superb assist by their supporting cast, who turn up in multiple roles. Lou Young is ingratiatingly sleazy as Merrick’s “mentor,” a real piece of work who fancies himself Merrick’s agent. John Galvan is excellent as the hard-headed hospital administrator. Karli Rose is a riot as Princess Alexandra and is joined by Ally Shore (amazing playing a variety of characters), Sara Patton and Kiegan Otterson as the Pinhead circus sisters; they dial down the shtick and make the Pinheads melancholy figures.

The excellent costume design by Lynda Timm and Kathleen Schultz and Caro Walker’s sets provide a subtle but tangible period setting. Sefton’s direction keeps this performance-focused, with only a few stylish eerie interludes depicting nightmares.

PC: Jack Grace

“The Elephant Man” isn’t depressing or unpleasant but it does provide an impactful night of theater. Sefton’s production tore into me, with its depiction of a man who is given the humanity and love that was long missing from his short life. Pomerance’s play is sad but gorgeous and this current production, from top to bottom, is  heartbreaking and essential.

The Elephant Man is playing at the ProArts Playhouse at the Azeka Shopping Center from Sept. 22-Oct.8th. Tickets can be purchased at proartsmaui.com or by calling 808-463-6550.

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About Barry Wurst II

Barry Wurst II

Barry Wurst II is a senior editor & film critic at MAUIWatch. He wrote film reviews for a local Maui publication and taught film classes at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs (UCCS). Wurst also co-hosted podcasts for Screengeeks.com and has been published in Bright Lights Film Journal and in other film-related websites. He is currently featured in the new MAUIWatch Podcast- The NERDWatch.

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