It has been 35-years since the Hippodrome tangled with The Elephant Man, a 1977 play by Bernard Pomerance. The HIPP had first produced the play upon arriving at their new home in the Downtown Federal Building and opening its doors to the public again in 1980. And fascinating to note, the Hippodrome was founded in 1973 before this play was even written. Of course the Hippodrome had not even been conceived of when Joseph Merrick was walking the streets of London in 1884, displayed as a curiosity freak directly across the street from the London Hospital, which would ultimately be his new home. I am reminded of some lines in the play. Joseph Merrick (John, as he is called in the text) has made a detailed model of St. Phillip’s Cathedral using his functional normal hand. Merrick’s other hand is like a club. He is speaking with Mrs. Kendal, who is a renowned actress and has been brought in to provide Merrick the comforts of female companionship—something which he has never known in his past, due to his appearance. Merrick says, St. Phillips is an ‘imitation’ of grace, flying up from the mud. Then, about his model, he says, “I make my imitation of an imitation.” Merrick says, even the imitation is heaven to him.
Merrick’s doctor, a young surgeon named Treves comments, Plato believed this is a world of illusion, and that artists made illusions of illusions of heaven.
Merrick asks, “You mean we’re all just copies? Of originals?”
Treves: “That’s it.”
Merrick: “Who made the copies?”
Treves: “God. The Demi-urge.”
Merrick: (Goes back to working on the model.) He should have used both hands shouldn’t he?
The Hippodrome, being in the business of theatre, makes illusions of illusions of heaven. But I can safely say that this version of The Elephant Man currently showing is no imitation of its predecessors. Two hands must have been used in this production. And actor Bryan Mercer (in a profoundly moving physically demanding performance) is no imitation of the Elephant Man. Joseph Merrick is walking across this Hippodrome thrust stage in 2016, telling his story, sharing his fear, giving us back our dignity and innocence, and exploring our many human themes.
Much is made of the physical requirements for this role, and we are told the play even comes with a warning to actors taking on the challenge. Mercer’s work here never feels like method, we do not see technique, the physicality is never played as a gimmick. Mercer has crafted a fully realized whole embodiment of his character, and it is as affecting and mesmerizing as any performance ever seen in this town. Mercer is an actor of extraordinary natural raw talent—there is never any doubt that he is so completely invested in this role, that you will have earned the value of your ticket in the first five minutes of his presence on the stage.
The supporting actors are all high caliber, and though this is really Doctor Treves’ story in a way, Mercer brings Merrick’s light shining in such an epochal and realistic way, we almost sense the other actors more or less existing as dreams.
Especially fine work from Joe Ditmyer as Treves. He strikes a refined almost stiff quality early on which authors a kind of irony—he’s wrapped tight in his fine suit and imprisoned by the regulations of hospital, trapped by his own moral convictions, he almost makes the twisted tree-frame trunk of Merrick seem poised, relaxed, and graceful. It bodes well for Ditmyer’s performance because when he finally surrenders to his compassion and emotion, the discovery is ever more powerful for the audience.
Nichole Hamilton as Mrs. Kendal strikes a regal presence, and as the relationship between her and Merrick begins to form, a most beautiful empathy translates so purely between them and the audience that I remarked to a patron on my way down the stairs for intermission that I was skiing down on a river of my tears. Not that this is a sad play—it will leave you reflective and hopeful—but that there are moments within that will powerfully move you. Hamilton’s performance is natural, elegant, and extremely courageous for reasons I will leave to the reader to experience.
Also strong performances from Niall McGinty as Bishop Walsham How (among several other roles), who functions in the play as the religious wing of moral compassion, and Logan Wolfe in multiple roles which demonstrate the range and capabilities of this fine young actor. It should be said that most of the actors assume a number of roles in the production and it becomes eye-popping to watch these many transformations.
Juliana Davis and Drew Michele also take on numerous roles. In particular, Davis as Nurse Sandwich helps the audience to understand the difference between the idea of revulsion and revulsion itself. She is absolutely confident in her ability to handle the vision of Merrick because she has seen such horrors before. When she finally encounters Merrick for the first time in the bath tub, her reaction (she runs the hell out of there screaming, never to return) is heartbreaking, bone-chilling, and our want to laugh at her folly, we stomp back down into our throats with remorse. Good theatre should have points where one experiences five or six emotions at the same time.
But most memorable are these actors’ performances as the two pinheads. Caused by a condition known as microcephaly which reduces the size of the head half-size and results in diminished brain capacity—these ‘freaks from the Congo’ are the most memorable and resonate as some ethereal metaphor among the themes of the play. How are they used by their manager, what is conditioned and what are they saying of their own accord, are they happy or miserable, do they adapt to conditions or long for freedom, what do they know of God? They permeate the play like specters. Something beneath the surface looms with every appearance. Davis and Michele find a way to play the pinheads that is respectful, and not a crude imitation of deformity or retardation. These characters will haunt you.
And then there is the work of Mark Chambers. We love Chambers playing multiple roles in a Tuna Christmas, or the lovable dope Norbert in Trailer Park Musical, the transvestite Dr. Frank-N-Furter from Rocky Horror, and even my favorite, the Queen of Hearts in the Hipp’s legendary mind-bending Alice, but Chamber’s work in Elephant Man is drop-dead serious, complex, and contains one of the most insanely rapid quick changes I’ve ever seen on a stage. As both Carr Gomm, the powerful administrator of the London Hospital, and Ross, the pathetic bottom-feeding freak show manager, Chambers grounds the play in both the administrator’s procedural elitism and in contrast, the carnival barker’s enslavement of the downtrodden in dirty visceral shit-mud. His ailing pitiful Ross, wheezing and pleading at the end with Merrick to come back to the life he left behind (Merrick, who by this time has established himself as a well-mannered sophisticate) made me cringe with delight for his payback, and then regret my delight. However he does it, to make me feel sorry for such an unadulterated slime-bag, is the power of Chambers’ work in this play.
Lighting by Robert P. Roberts for the most part was entirely too bright, which is to say that it was perfect. A bold choice, given examples from the well-known cinematic treatment which puts everything in chiaroscuro and shadow, here Robbins goes clinical, warts-and-all. Robbins does not take the expected obvious route, and it serves the play well. We are in a hospital, after all.
Sound Design by Amanda Yanes was also excellent. I felt I wanted more subtlety in the sense that on occasion, the music called too much attention to itself (volume?), but the choices were entirely supportive of the atmosphere and at times, struck beautiful collaborative moments with the action of the play. I especially enjoyed music which was heard outside the house and before the show began, setting a requisite tone.
The set, (Scenic Design by Mihai Ciupe) mostly a bare floor on which various scenic elements find their way to the stage with Director Lauren Caldwell flourishes, was remarkable in one sense—that being the curtains. In hospitals, curtains separate one room from another, one patient from another, they reveal, they hide, but they are not substantive like walls. I found this choice to be strong and poetic.
My one complaint was that I was seated not too far from the center on the side, and I did have to witness one extended conversation between Merrick and Ross which was blocked in such a way as to close it off and give me an actor’s full back for near six minutes. I would have liked to have seen that exchange opened up and further up stage.
Costumes by Jessica Nilacala Kreitzer (Marilyn A. Wall, Design Consultant) were authentic (I especially liked the treatment for the costuming of the Pinheads) and one day, you’ll tell me how you got Mark Chambers out of the decrepit wig and potato-sack Ross outfit and into a 19th Century tux coat and tail outfit in under 30 seconds, and who his wizard dressers were!
The Elephant Man is more powerful today than it ever was. If ever there was a time for our species to rediscover its humanity, its compassion, to pull back the curtain and turn up the lights so we can see our judgements, our preconceived notions, see the reality that faith and science are not enemies and that neither should we be, that we can be cured, and if we can’t be cured, we can be saved…
The Hippodrome is not imitating previous versions of the Elephant Man with this new production. Rather, the Hippodrome Theatre is allowing Joseph Merrick himself an opportunity to walk the Earth again and to empower us all to rebuild it--with both hands--into grace itself.
This is the real deal theatre you've been waiting for. Get off the Internet and go see this play.
Get your tickets here: http://thehipp.org/mainstage/