Saturday, February 25, 2012

"The Elephant Man" from Prime Stages

"The Elephant Man" is the stage adaptation of the life of John Merrick, a man who's physical deformities made him an outcast for most of his life. The play, which was originally done on Broadway where Merrick was at one point played by Mark Hamill and David Bowie. The play follows not only Merrick's journey, but the journey of the Victorean-era Londoners that surround him.

The play at the beginning is a fast-moving trek through London society circa late 1800's. The doctors, most importantly Dr. Frederick Treves (Justin Fortunato), stand very straight and speak elegantly about the fortunateness of being a British male at this point in history. Meanwhile the lower rungs of society are cruel and heartless to those even lower then themselves, as in the case of Merrick's manager, Ross (performed despicably by Brian Czarniecki). Basically, at the start of the play, it is very clear who we are meant to root for and loathe against as we are introduced to the titular character.

As we spend more time in the clean, sterile world of upper Victorean society, the play becomes almost allegorical. Merrick breaks through the facade of Victorian thinking, chastity and rules that "are for your own good" not with a sledgehammer, but with questions. What is great is that the play is not a "My Fair Lady" story where Merrick struggles alone, but how everyone struggles around him. Fate propels the play as light-up placards read foreboding messages about Merrick's future. And the shift as the question of "why are we helping him" rises is almost imperceptable until it becomes a moral land mine to Dr. Frederick Treves (played by Justin Fortunatoto in a role which transforms almost as much as the Elephant Man). After all, we want to like the nice people helping Merrick (for example Mrs. Kendal played by Maggie Ryan as the force-of-nature actress of the time) and dislike the bad people hurting him, but when the nice people's motives are called into question, it makes you go back rethink their interactions with Merrick from the start.

Sean Sears, who plays Merrick, steals the show. Yes, it is by virtue of being the main character, but it is also by the physical discipline Sears exerts onstage. "The Elephant Man" by Bernard Pomerance specifically calls for the actor to wear no prostetics. In truth this is probably to ease the production aspect as much as it is "see the humanity" of the Elephant Man, but it means many actors perform the role as physically normal, or with a slight speech impediment. However Sears goes to the necessary extreme, contorting his face and body not in general, but with extreme attention to what actual part of his body is deformed and how to move with it. On top of the physical, Sears moves a character through emotional maturity and discovery - which may not always be for the better.

The only complaint of the show would probably be that there are a few characters whose roles are so small/unimportant to the arc of the story that when they appear, speak a few lines, and disappear, the audience is distracted as to their point. Also, while the show is staged in the round, the best seats are really the main seats to the front - that is where the actors emote, speak and turn to most, particularly in monologues.

The great set over which hangs a chandelier and projection screen is a single-ring circus, Merrick's first cage, to his London Hospital room full of books , which may or may not be his second. Circus music feeds the set changes and dream sequences. Everyone stands tall and proud in their Victorean garb while Sears, notably, never dresses above a working man's suit - even when meeting a Countess.

If you are looking for a hidden treasure in Pittsburgh theatre, then "Prime Stage Theatre" might be what you are looking for. The company boasts a constantly moving, circulating group that regularly features new directors and actors. On top of it all, they have a great educational program benefiting the children and teens of the Pittsburgh area.

Tickets for "The Elephant Man" can be found at "Prime Theatre Stages" website at:

- The Eponymous Theatre Critic's clothes are woven from coarse camel hair, and features a leather belt around the waist. Before a show, Epony enjoys locusts and wild honey and visits from the people of Jerusalem, all of Judea and the whole region of the Jordan.

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