|Rielly Peene with Leticia Maskell|
By Tina Arth and Darrel Baker
A group of actors gets on a stage and performs a play in front of a room full of strangers who pay to stare at them. The play is about the effect on a deformed man of spending his life essentially earning a living by being stared at by paying strangers. Ironic? Maybe. Effective? Absolutely, as Beaverton Civic Theatre’s current offering of The Elephant Man clearly shows. Playwright Bernard Pomerance has created a powerful script, and director Jessica Reed brings his work to life in this thought-provoking production.
The Elephant Man is staged as a series of vignettes illustrating the last years of Joseph Merrick (inexplicably called “John Merrick” in the script), a horribly deformed man who briefly becomes a society darling in late Victorian London. The show opens with Merrick on display at a tawdry carnival in London’s miasmic East End. Merrick is in the clutches of his keeper, Ross, who sells glimpses of the afflicted man in a brutal freak show. Physician Frederick Treves, fascinated by Merrick’s disease and horrified by his treatment, gives him a home in the nearby London Hospital, where he spends the last years of his short life in (relative) peace and comfort but finds that he is still on public display – to a much better class of gawkers.
Author Pomerance, in his introductory note, advises against theater companies attempting to reproduce Merrick’s appearance or speech, so the actor is left to create the illusion of his character’s affliction without makeup or prosthetic devices. Rielly Peene, in his first lead role, is more than equal to the challenge. He twists his body just enough to capture the essence of physical deformity, and uses his face and voice to express the mental anguish of Merrick’s futile life.
Adam Caniparoli plays Frederick Treves as a compassionate but rigid man of science, able to sympathize but not really empathize with his ward’s awful plight. Caniparoli’s performance is a believable mixture of naiveté and professional rigidity; he shows the audience his social conscience and yet is bound by his adherence to social conventions. Steve Holgate portrays Carr Gomm, the hospital governor, as a pragmatic realist – not inhumane, but hesitant to commit the hospital’s resources to what he terms an “incurable.” Holgate’s commanding voice and stern demeanor poorly mask his character’s fundamental goodness.
The play’s primary antagonists, both peddling enigmatic wares, are drawn with a fine sense of irony by Laurence Cox (carney/con-man Ross) and Dave Paull (the sanctimonious Bishop How). Cox portrays a classic bully – loudly arrogant and domineering when he’s in control, sniveling and whiny when the chips are down, but always self-serving and sleazy. Paull’s take on How is eerily creepy; he delivers his lines in a soft monotone that highlights the emptiness of his platitudes.
Letitia Maskell as the actress Mrs. Kendal runs a serious risk of stealing the show. She is truly lovely, and brings more real compassion to her interactions with Merrick than any of his other would-be “saviors.” Externally, she is as extraordinarily lovely as he is ugly, yet she forges the strongest connection in the play with the tormented Elephant Man. The scene where she partially disrobes to give Merrick a glimpse of the female anatomy is handled with a subtle grace - almost inadvertently seductive, yet gentle and ladylike.
The production team has created a remarkably effective staging in the small space available. Sets are colorful but minimal, and the use of projection to express the central theme of each scene is clever and illuminating. Perhaps the best touch is the inclusion of two large pictures of the real Elephant Man, shown whenever the character is on stage. These pictures serve as a constant reminder of the devastating effects of Merrick’s physical deformity, yet the audience’s focus gradually shifts away from the horrific images as the character becomes fully human.
The Elephant Man runs through Saturday, May 17th at the Beaverton City Library Auditorium. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday and 2:00 p.m. on Sunday.