There's a lot of excitement surrounding the production of The Elephant Man at the Miners Alley Playhouse in Golden. The playhouse didn't exist until recently. What existed was the Morrison Theatre Company, which, under the direction of Rick Bernstein, mounted performances and offered acting classes in Morrison for over a decade. But the Morrison town hall, where the plays were staged, was blazing hot in the summer and not always available. Bernstein's quest for a new home for his company ended in an empty space that had once been a restaurant above Foss Drug on Washington Avenue, Golden's charmingly Old West-style main street. The city was enthusiastic about having a resident theater company and provided a hefty loan; more money came from grants.
Some frantic months of planning and building ensued, and the result is one of the more charming small theaters in the state, with a three-quarter thrust stage and an up-to-date sound and lighting system. There's also an airy, comfortable lounge just outside, with a huge window and a bar providing drinks and coffee. So it's not surprising that there was a kind of buzz circulating among the opening-night crowd -- wide smiles and open curiosity.
What of the play itself? The strength of Bernard Pomerance's script lies in its central image: the hideously deformed Elephant Man with the soul of a poet. Joseph (or John, as his doctor called him) Merrick was a real person who lived in Victorian England and suffered a baffling ailment -- uncontrolled bone growth and patches of flesh that swelled to monstrous, discolored proportions. Merrick's right side was far larger than his left, and his right hand was a useless flipper. His head, too, was distorted, and so large and heavy that he was forced to sleep sitting up. When he eventually died in his sleep, he was found lying down: The weight of his head had crushed his windpipe. Doctors have speculated ever since on the cause of his condition. In 1996, researchers examined his skeleton and diagnosed a very rare disease called Proteus Syndrome.
Merrick's case came to the attention of an eminent physician, Frederick Treves. Motivated equally by pity and scientific curiosity, Treves developed a relationship with him. Eventually, Merrick was allowed to live in a London hospital. Charitable contributions sustained him financially -- and also helped support the medical facility. Word of the Elephant Man's intelligence and thoughtfulness spread, and over the years, he was befriended by artists and society people.
Pomerance's play, which premiered in 1977, has lost some of its edge now, because almost everyone knows at least the outline of the story. But the idea of the gentle-hearted monster retains its archetypal appeal. In addition, plot isn't the primary focus here. The script is broken into several vignettes, each communicating -- or attempting to communicate -- a particular insight. This structure is supported by Bernstein's production, with its emphasis on ensemble. With the exception of Christian Mast as Merrick and Wade Livingston as Treves, each member of the Miners Alley cast plays several roles. The group also functions as a kind of chorus.
Mast does well as Merrick, communicating the man's deformity simply through the way he uses his voice and body, and without the help of padding, prosthetics or grotesque makeup. He's less successful in showing us the Elephant Man's stifled inner life; it would take an actor with extraordinary inner fire to do that. Livingston gives a fine portrayal of Dr. Treves, who comes across as strong, intelligent and sensitive. I liked Dell Domnik as both the unctuous bishop and the rascally Ross.
At one point, Treves decides that if Merrick is to learn how to function in polite society, he needs the company of women. He asks Mrs. Kendal, an actress, for help. When the doctor first talks to her, she's brittle, witty and artificial. Then she's introduced to the Elephant Man. Hiding her horror and disgust under a brightly artificial smile, she converses with him; the talk turns to literature. It's Mrs. Kendal who discovers the originality and profundity of Merrick's thinking. Over time, he teaches her more than she teaches him. Nikki Davis is charming in this role, alternately worldly and vulnerable. At one point Merrick muses on the fact that he's never had a mistress, never seen a woman naked. It's a tense scene; it's hard to imagine how the outcome could be anything but frightening or ugly. But Mrs. Kendal's response is bright, sweet and sympathetic. Both as written and as played by the actors, this is the most touching scene in the play.
Unfortunately, the script is flawed. Merrick sometimes seems too unfailingly virtuous and too superior to the regular people surrounding him to be true. Some of the speeches in the play are passionate but incomprehensible. We see Dr. Treves starting to fall apart, for example, deteriorating even as his own fame rises with that of his protegé. We understand that he's been involved in some kind of bad business deal; we see him imagining that he is the freak and Merrick the respected analyst. But his anguished speeches on these events are sometimes impossible to understand.
Part of the problem may lie in Bernstein's direction. His director's notes cite the influence of Richard Schechner and Jerzy Grotowski, theorists who were hugely influential in the '60s and '70s (for all I know, they influenced Pomerance, too). These directors attempted to reconceptualize theater, which they saw as a form of ritual powerful enough to transform society. Movement, sound and symbolism were at the heart of their work; words came in a distant second. But maybe the words in The Elephant Man require a cleaner and more straightforward delivery.
What I found most evocative about the evening was the insight it provided into the nineteenth century and, by extension, our own. During John Merrick's lifetime, England was at the height of her imperial power. At the beginning of the play, Treves is the quintessential Victorian gentleman, as confident of his own rightness as of his country's. Though some persisted in their faith, religion was no longer seen by men like Treves as the ordering principle of the universe. It had been dethroned by science and reason. The existence of the Elephant Man, however, disrupts all these calm certainties. Merrick is always asking questions: about justice and mercy, the reasons behind hospital rules, why Treves doesn't love the patients whose flesh he cuts.
I have a few quibbles with the production -- the model cathedral on which Merrick lavishes so much of his time should be much more shapely and beautiful, some of the characters could be more particularized -- but this evening of theater is well worth a trip to Golden. Enjoy the view on the drive there, stop for dinner at a local restaurant, stroll along Washington Avenue, then take in the show.
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